When Debunkers Need Debunking (1): American Thinker

Capture

For the first in our series on media sources that pose as debunkers but desperately cry out for debunking themselves, we turn to the website American Thinker. With its respectable sounding name and its mascot of Uncle Sam emulating Rodin’s celebrated statue, American Thinker promises informed, thoughtful and insightful commentary. What it delivers is more of the same old same old. Here are, honest to Pete, some actual random titles of recent articles on the site:

California Wildfires and Environmental Radicalism

Election Slaughter for Climate Activism

Global Warming Snowed Under

Hollywood Erases Hope

Democrat(sic) Corruption Is a Clear and Present Danger to America

Florida Election Fraud’s Hidden Gun-Control Agenda

The Left Favors Global Warming

Green Energy is the Perfect Scam

Reminder: White Liberals Hate Living in Black Neighborhoods

As laughably awful as such titles are, you can be assured that the articles they accompany are only worse. (While you well might suspect that the two we’re about to examine were chosen because they represent the site at its most inane, they’re actually among the most intelligent posts appearing there!) It appears that American Thinker doesn’t do much thinking at all except about how to advance the right-wing narrative and attack “liberals” — which are really the same objective. Among other things, you’ll notice that Thinkering apparently involves an obsession with trying to discredit science. (A little hint, guys: if you want to maintain even a modicum of credibility, lay off parroting the kindergarten “skepticism” about climate change.) One article even exults that American Thinker’s beloved White House Occupant is not an “intellectual”, in quotation marks. And not surprisingly, it jumps on the right-wing’s oh-so-trendy “fake news” bandwagon, rebranding real news as fake, and vice versa.

“Fake news is whatever we say it is”

One such endeavor is authored by David Solway (one of those “former leftists” who transformed into a right-winger after having a revelation that smugness is more profitable than humanity) with a piece called A Brief History of the Fake News Media. Unfortunately, he gets so carried away with being brief that he neglects to include any actual instances of fake news. (The BBC offers a much more respectable compact history of fake news.) What he mentions instead are a couple of possible instances of spin and political distortion from decades ago. Those things happen constantly — sometimes inadvertently. And, to cite a current extremely popular right-wing defense, both sides do it.

One of his supposed milestones in the history of “fake news” is that the media in 1964 ran with the contrived Democratic narrative that Barry Goldwater was trigger-happy. That characterization was based on Goldwater’s own words, such as this pronouncement:

There is real need for the supreme commander to be able to use judgment on the use of these weapons, tactical nuclear weapons, more expeditiously than he could by telephoning the White House, and I would say that in these cases the supreme commander should be given great leeway in the decision to use them or not to use them.

Maybe it really was unfair to conclude from such remarks that he was an antsy nukehead. (Solway limits his own consideration of Goldwater’s words to a different statement that sounds even less sinister.) But that hardly qualifies as fake news. And if Solway really wants to highlight such cases of media irresponsibility, one must wonder why he makes no mention of a very similar but far worse case 36 years later: the media’s relentless complicity in the GOP’s dishonest characterization of Al Gore as a liar. That involved not only misinterpreting but willfully misquoting and mangling Gore’s utterances — many, many, many of his utterances. The only problem is, the Gore disaster does not (to make a titanic understatement) do much to support the all-important narrative of “librul bias” in the mainstream media.

He also brings up another incident from ages ago, British politician Enoch Powell’s so-called “rivers of blood speech” in 1968,  citing the supposed dangers of allowing too many immigrants into his country.  Indeed, Powell recommended allowing virtually no immigration at all, and warned of the resentment and anger among (white) citizens if the Race Relations Bill were passed into law. Some in the media expressed outrage over the apparent racist connotations of his remarks; and in Solway’s universe, that’s just another example of the librulmedia making up things out of whole cloth. (He previously defended Powell in an article called The Scourge of Multiculturalism. No, really. That’s the actual title.)

What he fails to mention is that several conservative politicians were also outraged by the speech — the Conservative leader Edward Heath even dismissed Powell from his post because of it. Furthermore, there were instances of violent racist attacks by Powell’s supporters who were egged on by the comments. Yet, by Solway’s reckoning, the less than glowing reception of that oration by the Fifth Estate illustrates that

The media are especially adept at creating villains out of whole cloth for public consumption to advance a particular and often dubious purpose. How else explain the transformation of significant political figures into synonyms for perfidy and opprobrium.

If he really believes this — and if he’s truly concerned about it — then one really, really, really must wonder why he makes no mention of a far more recent, far more protracted, far more intensive, far more dishonest, far more malicious, far more lopsided and far more catastrophic occurrence: the media’s relentless demonization of Hillary Clinton, whom they turned into… well, a synonym for perfidy and opprobrium. And guess what? That undertaking included several instances of real, actual, genuine, bona fide fake news — e.g., “Pizzagate”, Russian uranium deal, and “Hillary caused the deaths in Benghazi”. No saga in modern history illustrates more clearly the disastrous impact of fake news than the tragedy of Hillary Clinton. It would have been the perfect textbook case study for Solway’s dissertation. Except for, um, one pesky little detail: it goes strongly against the grain of the librulmedia motif. Accordingly, he makes nary a peep about it.

But his most cringeworthy moment is in asserting that Joe McCarthy got a bum rap. It’s a stark testimony to the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of many wingers (like the Thinkerers, evidently) that they try not only to rehabilitate but to canonize this execrable waste of carbon. (More about this in a future post.) Particularly since the release of the Venona papers in 1995, the McCarthyites have been crowing that Their Boy has been exonerated, vindicated and exalted. Maybe the guy went a “little overboard”, they say, but he was right about the existence of Soviet spies in the U.S.

Yes, there were indeed such spies in the Thirties and Forties (when the Soviet Union was a U.S. ally, for what it’s worth), but they’d mostly come and gone before McCarthy ever decided to exploit paranoia for his megalomaniac pastime of destroying lives and careers. McCarthy knew zilch about communists and even less about spies, yet he was obsessed with conflating the two, and trying to implicate anyone who so much as wore red socks. He was just an unprincipled opportunist hugging the spotlight and firing into the dark. Perennial Communism scholar Harvey Klehr sums it up best:

But if McCarthy was right about some of the large issues, he was wildly wrong on virtually all of the details. There is no indication that he had even a hint of the Venona decryptions, so he did not base his accusations on the information in them. Indeed, virtually none of the people that McCarthy claimed or alleged were Soviet agents turn up in Venona. He did identify a few small fry who we now know were spies but only a few. And there is little evidence that those he fingered were among the unidentified spies of Venona. Many of his claims were wildly inaccurate; his charges filled with errors of fact, misjudgments of organizations and innuendos disguised as evidence. He failed to recognize or understand the differences among genuine liberals, fellow-traveling liberals, Communist dupes, Communists and spies — distinctions that were important to make. The new information from Russian and American archives does not vindicate McCarthy. He remains a demagogue, whose wild charges actually made the fight against Communist subversion more difficult. Like Gresham’s Law, McCarthy’s allegations marginalized the accurate claims. Because his facts were so often wrong, real spies were able to hide behind the cover of being one of his victims and even persuade well-meaning but naïve people that the whole anti-communist cause was based on inaccuracies and hysteria.

These words are from a speech that was even reprinted on the rabidly right-wing site  Frontpage Mag, founded by frothy-mouthed right-winger David Horowitz, whose schizo creed is that “the political left has declared war on America and its constitutional system, and is willing to collaborate with America’s enemies abroad and criminals at home to bring America down”. And steal our precious fluids, no doubt. I repeat, even this pitiful soul has signed off on Klehr’s assessment. Note also that it was a Republican who finally stood up to McCarthy on the Senate floor. And when the Senate voted to condemn him, half of his GOP pals broke ranks to vote against him. (Do you realize what a feat it is to get even one GOPer to break ranks on anything?) And yet, we’re supposed to believe that McCarthyism is a wholesale fiction created by The Left in collaboration with their accomplices, the lamestream media.

Had them librulz really exercised such a stranglehold on the media, McCarthy would have been brought to account for his recklessness and cruelty years earlier. Yet in Solway’s universe, the media’s reporting, at long last, the truth about McCarthy is not only a specimen of fake news, but proof positive of librulbias in the media. His allegiance to the McCarthy cult probably tells you all you need to know about him. And, for that matter, all you need to know about American Thinker. Not to mention the fact that the site also defends the forty-fifth White House Occupant — it even labels as “snowflakes” those who oppose this putative president whose fragile ego and infantile whinings are the daily fodder of news and social media.

The color of welfare

Meanwhile, another frequent contributor, Sierra Rayne (a supporter of the 45th W.H.O., which is probably all  you need to know about him) tries his hand at debunking the “myth of red state welfare”.  As you may have heard, the meme has been going around (a “key liberal talking point”, as he pegs it) that “red states” — i.e., those who vote for Republican presidential candidates — are bigger welfare leeches than “blue” states — i.e., those who vote for Democratic presidential candidates. Rayne takes aim at this “myth”, but unfortunately for him, he seems to have a clumsy habit of serving up facts that debunk his own debunking efforts.

It’s really not fair, he says, to judge a state’s redness or blueness merely by how it voted in the most recent presidential election; we should look at a more long-term trend. Sounds reasonable enough. So then he posts the following table, covering percentages of votes for Democratic candidates in elections from 1980 to 2012.

Red state welfare.PNG

Trouble is, even over this three-decade span, the figures strongly corroborate the “red state welfare myth”. Of the top 10 welfare states, only two were not clearly red (New Mexico and West Virginia, which were evenly split). And of the bottom 10 welfare states, only three were not clearly blue (Nevada and Colorado were distinctly red — though they’ve been trending blue of late — while New Hampshire was evenly split).

Ah, but it’s really the numbers in those columns on the right that he wants you to focus on. Because the central point of his thesis is that the hue of a state should actually be determined by how it votes for governors and congresspersons, because… well, just because. And here, he claims, is where the red state welfare “myth” completely “falls apart”. By his reckoning, North Dakota and South Dakota should be considered blue states, even though both have gone Democratic in NONE of these presidential elections.

It isn’t terribly difficult to see that something doesn’t add up about his claims. For one thing, it results in some serious mixed messages. Mississippi (which also scored zero in favoring Democratic presidents) voted 13 percent for Democratic senators and 62 percent for Democratic representatives. So which is it? There are similar problems with Louisiana (87 percent and 45 percent) and Minnesota (35 and 62).

To his credit, Rayne himself seems to acknowledge that it’s not always easy to determine that a state is either red or blue. But again, he swats down his own argument by bringing up California. Surely just about everyone in the galaxy recognizes that the Golden State is the quintessence of azure. You know, granola crunching, war protesting, pot smoking, free love and all that groovy stuff, man. Not to mention the “Hollywood elitists”.  Yet, as he points out, California has a nasty habit of electing Republican governors, going back decades — those kooky Californians even elected a couple of those Hollywood elitists, for heaven’s sake.

Rayne’s mention of California should have clued him in that he was overlooking a very important point: voting habits are a reflection of the values that actually determine redness or blueness. And the evidence indicates that presidential choice usually reflects those values more accurately than voting patterns in other elections. The probable reasons are simple and obvious (except perhaps to Thinkerists). First, more voters participate in presidential elections. A lot more. Average voter turnout for presidential election years is about 50 percent higher than for midterm years; for other elections, it can be 200 to 300 percent higher! Furthermore, whatever the number of participants, most voters simply regard the presidential vote as the most important; thus, it’s more likely to show the true colors of the electorate. And voters probably are more likely to cross the aisle when they feel there’s less at stake.

In trying to pull a gotcha on them librulz for cherry picking, Rayne does some major cherry picking himself. Just another day in the life of a Thinkererer. For all its pseudointellectual posturing, American Thinker clearly exists for the same purpose as other right-wing propaganda outlets: to promote anti-intellectualism and bigotry.

Shades Of Subjectivity

 

maxresdefault

Among those individuals who feel compelled to attack me because my writing challenges their beliefs, the most common refrains are along these lines: “You’re promoting your own ideology”; “You’re just as biased as the people you’re criticizing”; “You’re just expressing your opinion”; “You’re called The Propaganda Professor because you’re trying to teach propaganda”. These knee-jerk comments are not particularly worth responding to in themselves, but taken as a whole they reveal some interesting misunderstandings about subjectivity that we might as well try to clear up.

Here’s a sampling from my mailbag:

Like all propagandists, you’re just too quick to remind your readers that you’re somehow immune from bias. “Aw shucks, I’m just a home plate umpire who simply calls balls and strikes”…No educated person over thirty is unbiased or impartial. …. By the time one reaches your age, unless you’re a moron incapable of reason, or have been living in a vacuum, you’ve acquired a specific set of beliefs like anyone else. To suggest otherwise, like you do, is delusional.

 

Wow. It’s always amusing to hear form those people (total strangers) who claim to know me better than I know myself. I can only assume that they’re not only professing to be extremely gifted psychoanalysts, but also extremely gifted psychics. I must inform them, however, that their Ouija boards are very much in need of a trip to the shop for an overhaul. It’s hard to imagine a more knotted tangle of misconceptions than that above, which all came from a single reader.

One problem I keep seeing is that there is often a tendency to bundle bias, opinion, ideology, distortion and propaganda into a single entity — and then to demonstrate confusion about what each one really is. They’re all quite distinct, however, though they all are indicators of subjectivity. Let’s take a look at the different types, or shades of subjectivity if you will, and some examples of each.

1. Objectivity (“The ice cream parlor sells chocolate as well as vanilla.”)

This is simply a straightforward reporting of the facts, with absolutely no intrusion of personality or judgment. Or is there? Why are the flavors listed in that particular order? Are there also other flavors that have been omitted? Why does the speaker feel compelled to say “as well as”, as if there would be any question about it? Why “as well as” instead of “both…and” or just “and”?

The truth is that aside from such very fundamental propositions as “two plus two equals four” or “the earth orbits around the sun”, it’s virtually impossible to maintain total objectivity. Nor is there necessarily any reason why we should in most cases. Subjectivity does not by any means automatically compromise accuracy.

When I first began writing this blog, I had the intention of striving for as purely an objective a tone as possible. I soon abandoned this criterion for two reasons: first, staying behind that line is so difficult that even balancing on it could be perceived as a failure to adhere to my objective; and second, subjectively presented material is just more fun and interesting both to write and to read.

2. Normal Subjectivity (“Fortunately, the ice cream parlor sells chocolate and vanilla.”)

So if we can’t have pure objectivity, then naturally our observations are tinged with our own likes and dislikes.  The speaker of the above comment feels that it’s a good thing that both chocolate and vanilla are being sold, and says so. Notice that this does not alter the accuracy of the central fact being related: the two flavors are still being sold, whether it’s fortunate or not.

Quite often, it’s a matter of what labels or adjectives are applied to a particular person, group of people or thing.  Note the difference, for example, between “gun rights advocates”, “gun culture” and “gun nuts”. They all might refer to the same group of people, but the individuals doing the referring are exhibiting very different attitudes. Or note the difference between “environmental activists”, “elite environmentalists” and “tree huggers”.

Again, these are examples of what we call “normal” subjectivity. There is no distinct dividing line on the scale of subjectivity that separates the “normal” from the extreme or calculated forms of subjectivity. The scale isn’t like a guitar fingerboard, where frets mark the distinct gradations. It’s more like the board on a violin, where the steps aren’t conspicuous, but are still evident when heard by a trained ear.

Yes, I exhibit subjectivity of my own. I find it very difficult, for example, to speak of Dick Cheney without the same snarl he displays when anyone dares challenge his supremacy. But that doesn’t mean that I lie or distort the facts when I’m discussing him. There’s no need to.

3. Bias (“The ice cream parlor sells chocolate and other flavors.”)

Here there’s a very strong indication that the speaker favors chocolate over the “other flavors”. And that’s generally what bias boils down to: a manifest preference for one thing over another.  And it’s usually expressed in one of two ways: how much coverage you give one thing versus another, or how favorable or unfavorable that coverage is.  Bias tends to be quite consistent within a given source, whereas “normal” subjectivity may or may not be.

Yet bias itself is not undesirable, nor does it necessarily indicate inaccuracy or falsehood. People sometimes call Fox “the most biased name in news”, which is certainly true enough if you actually classify the network as a news source, but the complaint is not particularly relevant. The problem with Fox is not that it’s biased; the problem with Fox is that it relentlessly lies and distorts, and passes off propaganda as legitimate news. These are not always functions of bias.

In sharp contrast, Media Matters for America is also quite biased. But unlike Fox, it makes no effort to conceal the fact, loudly proclaiming that it exists specifically to combat “conservative misinformation”. Yet Media Matters is excruciatingly thorough and accurate, and indeed more fair and balanced than Fox will ever be in its wildest nightmares. It also comes about as close as humanly possible to a purely objective journalistic voice.

4. Opinion (“The ice cream parlor sells chocolate and vanilla, the two best flavors.”)

Opinion entails not only expressing your preferences, but your beliefs.  Such opinions frequently are conclusions based on a subjective definition of terms or subjective interpretation of facts. The conclusion, for example, that chocolate and vanilla are the “best” flavors might be based on the fact that they are the most popular — which in turn might be defined by sales volume.

But even opinion does not necessarily signal inaccuracy or dishonesty — not unless the speaker tries, as in the above example, to pass off those opinions and beliefs as fact. I probably don’t have to tell you that his happens constantly in the media and in politics.

Certainly, you’ll find an occasional opinion in my writings, but not that often. And only about minor matters — not as the main thrust of the discussion. This is not a blog of opinion but of facts. And when readers declare that I’m just expressing my opinion, they’re almost always confused.

A good example is the following statement from my post The Myth Of Hitler’s Gun Ban.

Given all of this, it’s pretty hard to make a case that “gun control” played a significant role in Nazi conquest.

Which also I paraphrased elsewhere by saying that “there is no reason to believe” it would have made a difference had the Jews been better armed. This, the Psychic Psychoanalysts proclaim, is mere opinion; and they just know that with a few more weapons, the Jews could have avoided their fate.

But in fact it is they who are expressing an opinion, and they have damn little to support it. It is a historical fact that oppressed minorities have usually fared poorly in armed conflicts against their oppressors, and nobody has yet presented any reason to believe that Jews in Germany would have been an exception — no reason except, “they just would have, that’s all”.

Now if I’d said instead that “it would not have made any difference had the Jews been better armed”, then you might get away with calling that an opinion, albeit a highly informed one. But when I say “there is no reason to believe…” any such thing, I am not being speculative or opinionated but realistic.

5. Propaganda (“The ice cream parlor sells chocolate, which raises your IQ, and vanilla, the favorite of terrorists.”)

Propaganda, as we define the term here (and as it’s almost always defined in contemporary society) is deliberately manipulating, distorting or misrepresenting the truth in order to persuade other people to believe or disbelieve a certain thing. This is the sin that reactionary detractors love to accuse me of, since it’s the very thing I decry. But they have yet to produce any instances of my doing so.

Certainly, I have beliefs of my own. I believe that the earth orbits around the sun, that Paris is a city in France, and that my eyes are blue. But unlike most other people (certainly most Americans) I don’t crave having beliefs, and will do everything I can to avoid them; it takes a great deal to get me to believe anything.

Perhaps what the commentator meant to say was that I have values and principles of my own. This is true as well, of course. Indeed, I have probably more or less the same values and principles you do: justice, fairness, honesty, tolerance, love, truth, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But we don’t all always have the same concept of what constitutes these things or how best to achieve them. Thus ideologies are born.

And contrary to rumor, I don’t have any ideology of my own. An ideology, as we commonly use the term,  is not just a set of principles, values and/or beliefs. It’s a standardized set of beliefs. I am not a Democrat, a Republican, a communist, a fascist, a socialist, a capitalist, a Libertarian, a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a Buddhist or a Scientologist. My practice is to see the positives and negatives in all such ideologies, and to weigh each issue on its own merits rather than how it fits into a preconceived template.

Yes, it requires more effort. But it’s worth it.