Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Digging for the Truth

In one of my adult phases, I dared People Who Speak Empty Clichés to prove the truth of their clichés.  Anyone who tossed out the phrase liberal mainstream media or even the Palin invention, lame-stream media, earned sharp inquiries: which network? which newsreader? what story was never told? which report was spun topsy-turvy until the truth was just a puddle of lies and distortions?

Without exception, no one answered every question. A few, surprised to be asked, tossed CNN and the New York Times into the conversational fire, and I knew I’d won the argument. CNN, I snapped, might have been viewed as liberal in its early days because it tried to tell the whole story accurately and sent reporters forth around the world to tell stories from multiple points of view, but a left-leaning agenda was never in its playbook. It’s nothing like its Ted-Turner incarnation anymore, but I could be wrong, of course. Give me a story that was twisted and turned left instead of dead-center.

Without exception, no one thus challenged offered a specific story, a single betrayal; everyone just repeated the blather that Richard M. Nixon and his right-handed men sent forth. In their paranoia and malfeasance in office, they believed the best defense is a good offense so they smeared the media. I’m sure their misdirection is still traveling well beyond the mesosphere where alien life forms chuckle. And that’s my point: A lie told often enough becomes the truth.

Vladimir Lenin said that. Yes, Lenin, the Russian, he of revolutionary ideologies, the mastermind orchestrating the Bolshevik revolution, the ruthless leader of Russia reincarnated as the United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR). His is a name prominent in a list titled Fathers of Communism, and his cynical observation about brainwashing, also known as effective propaganda, has become a strategy for winning the day. In fact, the 2010 and 2012 elections prove that propaganda is alive and in use. The 2014 election appears to be founded upon propaganda as well.

FOX told itself and its viewers lie after lie, so often and so loudly that folks were caught off guard, down in the dumps, and discombobulated when other networks put Ohio in the blue column. Karl Rove, proving how little he understands demographics, protested in vain, leaving only vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan to take the reins and ride forth, telling more lies.

One lie that Ryan likes to tell is that his budget is new. It’s not. It’s 2011 Redux. He claims to rid the world of Obamacare; he doesn’t. He just wriggles around in its ingredients, tossing out all components favorable to people in need while retaining any component that saves money. He proclaims that his budget is fiscally responsible, but dissembles when asked to put pen to paper and prove his claims mathematically.

The budget that President Obama has put forth saves more money than Ryan’s, but most likely, few people know about President Obama's budget recommendation. It’s available to all, but not through the mainstream or even most cable media programs. Perhaps most important, the media should help the public understand that in proposing a budget, President Obama has fulfilled his Constitutional duty to recommend and request. It is the House of Representatives that’s charged with raising revenue, and Congress has the duty of finalizing federal budgets.

But FOX, Rove and Ryan are not the only voices spewing propaganda. The mainstream media is a co-conspirator, even on matters as important as the recent sequester cliff-hanger. CBS’s long-running Face the Nation with Bob Schieffer in the anchor-chair is a great example. Schieffer enjoys headlines like this one: "Bob Schieffer Blasts Washington" suggesting that Schieffer speaks truth to power, at least on the matter of sequesters and budgets, but I disagree. Schieffer merely said what many had already said, what most people already knew. He offered nothing new and certainly did not provide the full Monty. He said, "The idea was that no sane person would allow such cuts to happen. Well, guess what: even Washington managed to underestimate its own ineptitude. The sequester and the draconian cuts are about to happen, because the White House and Congress can't close the partisan divide and figure out what to do with them, which is disheartening to say the least."

To understand the sequester and partisan divides requires more than sixty words, and news has a responsibility to report the whole story or shut up. Schieffer, I suspect, will argue that viewers will not stay tuned for much more than sixty words. Viewers want 140-word Tweets, they want action, and as good voyeurs, they want a bit of titillation. If it bleeds, it leads has long been a media cliché, and thus, we who demand nothing more, tune in for the death toll at Newtown, the body count at Aurora, the latest sexual peccadillo from a sports icon, and the most recent hypocrisy from Washington.

Jon Stewart interviewed Bob Schieffer soon after Newtown and asked why messages from Ted Nugent and the NRA make the nightly news while counter messages from police officers and more moderate citizens do not receive fifteen-minutes of fame. Stewart wanted to know why the media spreads the distortions, why it takes no responsibility for the shape of the story, but Schieffer had no answer. . In fact, he may not have understood the question and certainly did not seem to recognize that he may be part of the problem instead of the solution.

Schieffer said that representatives from law enforcement had been guests on his program before, then complained that “we’re not hearing very much from them right now” as if he has no authority to give law enforcement a national voice. All he has to do is invite law enforcement to speak and give them a microphone so that their message may be heard widely, at least as widely as the fellow who offered that the Holocaust might have been prevented if Jews had guns.

Stewart probed Schieffer regarding the tendency to lead with blood instead of facts and reasoned arguments. Schieffer demurred, saying “I don’t know about that.” Stewart closed the interview without offering an extended web episode. He seemed to give up on Schieffer’s ability to take responsibility for the generalized and sometimes skewed messages he fronts. Indeed, Schieffer’s program often shows him giving politicians plenty of rope, then giving them some more because he lets them rant and dissemble without challenging their facts and figures.

Once upon a time, the minority had a tough time getting out its messages. Proselytizers and acolytes stood on corners passing out flyers. Occasionally, they were more furtive, weaving in and out of parked cars, placing pamphlets under windshield wipers. I remember receiving one of those from the John Birch Society (JBS). Its use of ad hominem, faulty logic, and doomsday predictions proved within the first paragraphs that JBS was a fringe element, one that attracts folks with preconceived biases or those who fear the present, change, and the future. A core JBS belief, for example, is that the purpose of many is “to destroy our constitutional Republic", and they cite the Declaration of Independence instead of the Constitution as proof that our nation was founded upon godly principles.

JBS has never been an organization that speaks for the majority of Americans. Its minority opinions have found vehicles, including social media today--as is its right. But many minorities enjoy celebrity status. Climate-change deniers, for example, a group no larger than 30% of citizens polled is treated respectfully in the media. Newsreaders routinely sit on the fence when pronouncing stories about climate change instead of asserting, as nearly 70% of Americans do, that climate change is not only real, but also a very real problem.

Indeed, the Tea-Party, much in the news, often invited to be the talking-head of the day on news programs, enjoys similar protections. Newsreaders allow them to speak without challenging the basic facts of their messages. The problem was so pervasive during the 2012 campaign that news-checkers and truth-diggers had more work than they could handle. Still the truth does not get through to that minority to which we often cater. President Obama’s citizenship is an excellent example. The media spread the doubt by legitimizing the doubters, by giving them a forum instead of consigning them to parking lots and windshield wipers. Media complicity fueled the fires of ignorance, leaving us with people who still believe that our president is an interloper. If only the media refused to chase bright, shiny things, they could have spared the Obama family all the veiled racism and unfounded suspicion.

Thus, the media are complicit in the partisan divide, in shaping the public debate, and in failing to inform the public, but we, the public, are complicit as well. We can and should demand better. We can and should object. We can refuse to support any news organization and newsreader who offers only chum--you know, the vile, bloody brew that draws sharks. We can double-check with before passing along a tale. We can change the channel instead of tucking in for an afternoon of vitriol with Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity. We can, and we must.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Teaching Our Children Well

“It is possible to store the mind with a million facts and still be entirely uneducated.” (Alec Bourne)

For those of us without the ability to stream video easily, inexpensively, and efficiently, PBS is a gift. Through programming such as Frontline and Independent Lens, we can see carefully researched documentaries on a wide variety of topics important to a healthy nation.

One that I enjoyed recently (28 January 2013) is The Revisionaries. Directed by Scott Thurman and written by Brooke Shelby Biggs, Jeffrey Dinsmore, and others, the film reveals members of the Texas State School Board as they apply their “personal ideological beliefs” to establish learning priorities and shape curriculum in Texas. What happens in Texas does not, however, affect Texas alone. With a large population and therefore, a huge textbook market, Texas shapes textbook content in more states than its own.

Under the leadership of dentist Don McLeroy, a member of the State Board of Education from 1998-2011 and its chair from 2007-2011, some historical figures, including Cesar Chavez, have been pushed aside while others, especially Ronald Reagan, have been highlighted. McLeroy’s Board also worked to insure that students believe this nation is fundamentally and inextricably linked to Christianity without any consideration whatsoever for the exclusionary methods of early Christians or for their genocidal practices toward the first Americans. The Texas Board labored to put the most positive spin upon the Founders and to transform them into their own vision of devout Christians with special emphasis upon their Board members’ belief that a separation between church and state was never intended nor embraced by them, and the Founders’ link to Christianity is not the only positive spin required. The McLeroy board also wants McCarthyism spun.

In addition, from his personal bully pulpit, the dental chair, Don McLeroy proselytizes as he drills, sings hymns as he examines, and asks patients if they believe in evolution. His theology, especially his rejection of a common ancestor for all life forms, has become part of his practice. Several minutes of the documentary show McLeroy’s captive audience--his dental patients--with mouths agape as their dentist preaches.

The film opens, however, with McLeroy being questioned by the Texas legislature in 2009 because so many Texas constituents had complained to their legislators, resulting in legislation that curtails the power of the Board to shape curriculum. When asked if McLeroy wished to supplant evolution with Intelligent Design, he demurred, admitting that he did not wish to force the study of Intelligent Design upon students, but he did hope that students would learn to doubt the credibility of evolution after a careful analysis and evaluation of the theory.

Although McLeroy’s stamp is upon the TX curriculum in the third decade of the twenty-first century, he failed to win reelection. The Board itself is no longer heavily weighted with ultra-conservative members. Still it leans right as does the entire state. In 2012, the TX GOP included in its platform the following:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

In other words, the GOP believes in the sovereignty of parents to teach their children what they believe to be true--even if that happens to be untrue. For example, the GOP would allow students to dismiss evolution as a ridiculous theory for which no scientific evidence exists, and the current iteration of the GOP dismisses climate change as a natural occurring phenomenon rather that the consequence of man’s enterprise in creating a greenhouse effect. The party and many of its members argue that forcing children to believe in certain, well-defined outcomes, including an understanding of evolution and climate change, would be to redefine the values that parents hold dear, that parents wish their children to hold dear, and is therefore undesirable.

Such a philosophical and political posture undermines the body of knowledge that exists. It heralds ignorance as an acceptable, even preferable, social value. The party’s platform suggests that taking matters on faith is not just preferable, but also better than learning to analyze and evaluate. The platform declaration elevates the unexamined life and a world in which all frontiers of inquiry slam shut.

The TX GOP prefers to cripple its children by allowing them to believe that matters of the known world are not, in fact, known at all. Those children will encounter surprise--at least--and cynicism--at worst--once they leave their homes and TX public schools. They will find doubt cast upon their beliefs and will likely be unarmed to defend their beliefs, primarily because compelling evidence does not exist for their family-bred, uncritically claimed beliefs.

Let us not forsake science or the truth, unvarnished, blemishes and all. Our children do not need to wallow in the depravities that have occurred as men claimed sovereignty over beasts and each other, but they should know that the record of mankind is one that improves as it evolves. Once we condemned and exiled a woman, Anne Hutchison, for daring to hold prayer meetings and Bible study in her home. Today, women serve as preachers and reverends and pastors. Once we sent Roger Williams packing because he defended the Native Americans’ sovereign rights to the land against the European settlers who claimed it for themselves. We have since upheld Roger Williams’ convictions and have acknowledged the hazards of social Darwinism.

Above all, our children should know that “the arc of justice is long, but bends toward justice” (Martin Luther King, Jr.), and they should admire King, the man who stood against superstition, ignorance, and prejudice to promise justice to the many, not the few.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

High Noon 2013: Sequestration

I haven’t seen High Noon in decades, but the shoot-out between Marshall Will Kane and outlaw Frank Miller is iconic. Even the words high noon are now part of our understanding; when it’s high noon, we know a decisive moment, a deadline of consequence, has come.

Marshall Kane’s high noon arrives when Frank Miller’s prison term ends. Upon his release, Miller gathers his gang and announces that he will arrive on the noon train to avenge his lost years by shooting Kane, the man who sent him to prison. Newly retired and ready to leave town with his new bride, the lovely Grace Kelly as Mrs. Kane, Kane initially decides not to stay to fight, but honor and duty overtake him. He stays, and in doing so, must face an ugly truth: the townspeople that he’d kept safe refuse to stand with him. So Kane becomes the classic American underdog. Alone, driven by personal honor, a determination to protect the many from the harms of the few, and raw courage, Kane goes into the dusty street at high noon to face overwhelming odds.

This scene returned to me again and again as I contemplated the sequestration hysteria, and I imagined the forces in Washington, D. C. in that street where four roads intersect under a hot, bright sun in a frenzied news cycle. On the east road stand the nine Supreme Court justices. Across from them, on the west road, stand Senate minority leader McConnell, Harry Reid just behind, holding on to Mitch’s coattail.

From the other two roads come the major players. President Obama faces north, the high ground, from which House majority leader John Boehner descends haltingly. Each time he pauses, Eric Cantor gives him a good push to get him back on track.

President Obama and Representative Boehner move slowly, pausing now and then to appeal to the masses, all safely behind thick walls, looking on and listening in from above, in buildings, their faces hidden, masked, behind windows draped with muslin. When asked by the stinging gnats we commonly call reporters, a few onlookers place bets upon President Obama’s ideology, but most are so busy trying to put food on tables and roofs over heads that they simply cannot get too involved. They’re just waiting now, wondering which future they will be condemned to live, one that sends more of them into unemployment lines or one that gives them a fighting chance to hang on another year.

As the bell tower sounds twelve tones, each man raises his weapon, automatics with large magazines, the legal weapon of the realm. They take aim and hold their breath, counting one … two . . . seven…waiting for twelve, the moment when they have decided to dare all, to stake their lives upon a principle. They will live or die by their self-inflicted convictions. Neither one can concede without shame; neither one believes he should surrender. He has looked at election results, tortured them to suit his worldview, and persuaded himself that his cause is righteous. He will martyr himself to that view in the hope that his legacy will endure beyond this hour: high noon in Washington, D. C.

When the twelfth chime fades, muzzles fall. Each man has failed to bring down his opponent; he’s shot himself in the foot instead. Four Justices rush to help the President while four others rush to support Boehner. One remains, his head ticking left and right as he tries to decide who fired first and faster than the other, trying to determine which man deserves the decision.

McConnell and Reid scurry away, back to their campaign lairs, ready to renew efforts leading to reelection in 2014. McCain and Graham, awaiting outcomes at a dark, dank saloon table, hear the news and turn away, ashamed to see men who would let the national defense down so completely. They let the gnats sign them up for endless rounds of news hours where they will prognosticate a grim future.

The peasants move away from the windows. They go back to putting food on tables and roofs over heads, inured to the drama that politicians stage, cynically assured that those actors on the stage care little for their struggles. Gnats buzz and hypothesize.

So what should the next act in this drama be? President Obama should tell the people that he will do everything within his power to shield them from the worst of Washington, and Congress should prick its bubble and mix it up with those of us in the real world. Boehner should shake off Cantor’s hold and cling to his Constitutional duty as provided for in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution: The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States; ….

By abdicating, as Boehner and his tea-lovers have, and by deferring to the Senate or blaming the President, the House has simply become derelict. It has betrayed its duty to the people. And so has the Senate, ever so fond of filibuster threats and posturing about ties to Muslims, the natural, cyclical warming of the earth, and dark secrets unknown. Neither body sends whole, thoughtful legislation to the president for his signature; instead they play a game of chicken, daring each other to blink and turn away, all in an effort to gather power.

The President cries J’accuse, finger pointed to Congress, and they point right back. Scalia, speaking provocatively and for other lovers of tea, suggests that he will have to take over since Congress lacks the spine to oppose entitled notions and hangers-on. Impartiality, be damned. Precedent? Pah!, he says.

And we are left with uncertainty, certain only that government has broken down. Hopelessness weaves its icy fingers around our hearts. We look toward the horizon for a lone figure driven by personal honor, a determination to protect the many from the harms of the few, and raw courage. If only he or she would hurry for our need is great.