It’s been a strange year, yeah?*
About this time last year,** a woman I used to think kindly of posted some [ridiculous, biased, highly charged, partisan] article on Facebook with the comment, “The left can’t see the truth.” (Later in another post, she shared a similar sentiment: “The left can’t see past their noses.”) At the time, I wondered, What TRUTH does she think I am missing? It was a generic statement without a clear meaning.
Did she mean the truth about her candidate, the one she’d self-righteously announced she voted for because she believed he represented her Christian values? (Her words, from an earlier post.) What values,*** exactly, are those?
- The multiple divorces and infidelities? (I know for a fact the Bible has commandments about those.)
- The serial lies? (WaPo keeps a list of them.)
- The lewd behavior? (The man bragged about the size of his penis in an election debate. He bragged about grabbing women’s genitalia. UPDATE: And it appears he had an affair with a porn star, to whom he paid $130K hush money during his presidential campaign.)
- The white supremacists? (He can’t bring himself to disavow them. Of course, that’s because he’s a well-known racist.)
- The talk to the Boy Scouts? (His profane performance was deplorable.)
- Throwing around racially offensive comments like “shithole countries”? (I’ve mentioned the racism, right?)
- Rounding up immigrants? (The Bible says: “For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. … Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” —Matthew 25: 42–43, 45)
- I could go on and on and on.
But it’s not just this specific “friend.” (I say this in quotations because I don’t feel we are friends any more, frankly.) I can’t tell you how many times I have read (or had said to me), “She lost. Get over it.” (To which I think and might answer, angrily, that she didn’t actually lose.) A year later, people are still saying that, as if it is a meaningful response to this Seussian world we are living in. In which people like me are left saying, “But the facts are …” and “The law says …”
I realize now that this friend was just spouting some verbiage she’d heard, mostly likely on Fox (Not)News. Or that her husband read on Breitbart or listened to on Rush Limbaugh. “Talking points.” And for the last couple years I’ve been telling myself, Well, they’re just brainwashed. Remember, a year ago it had been six months since I’d spoken with my brother. I was already aware of the political brainwashing phenomenon. As an article about this issue in Vox points out:
Information [on the right] is evaluated not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders. “Good for our side” and “true” begin to blur into one.
This is the frighting situation we face. There is an entire industry devoted to disseminating an alternate version of reality that is “good for the [Republican] side.” And the lunatic right wing is snapping it up and passing it around amongst themselves: a University of Oxford study has found that trump supporters and extreme conservatives consume and share more “junk news” on social media than every other political group combined. (You can read more about that here and here.) The McClatchy News Bureau spoke with the lead researcher, Philip Howard:
The findings suggest “that most of the junk news that people share over social media ends up with Trump’s fans, the far right. They’re playing with different facts, and they think they have the inside scoop on conspiracies.”
As a result, he said in a phone interview, it appears that “a small chunk of the population isn’t able to talk politics or share ideas in a sensible way with the rest of the population.”
When I was growing up, our family watched the six o’clock news every night without fail. (I continued this habit well into adulthood.) There were three networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—and each had a respected journalism unit that produced the news program. Everybody had a favorite, a preferred vendor for news. My family watched Walter Cronkite on CBS.
The networks were competing with each other, sure, although not for alternate facts. But now … we have the Fox network. It is utterly biased and often just lies. Fox is all about the “good for our side” (which is the far-right, conservative, wingnut version of the Republican party) and not particularly concerned about the true. I understand that some folks may have started watching Fox fifteen years ago, before this bias was so blatant. It’s like putting the frog in the pot of water on the stove and then turning on the heat—the frog is cooked before it knows what’s happened to it. And Fox viewers are boiled frogs; anyone watching Fox these days doesn’t know what the truth is, because they’ve been gradually brainwashed and thoroughly misinformed over a period of time.
Vox goes on:
From Reagan forward, the US has become much more politically polarized, but the polarization has not been symmetrical—the right has become far more extreme than the left. (That story is exhaustively told in Asymmetric Politics, by political scientists David Hopkins and Matt Grossmann.)
But it doesn’t help much to think of polarization as working purely along a single left-right axis, as though the right has simply moved further right. Instead, there has been a break, a divergence of political worldviews.
On one side is what we might call the classic liberal democratic (small-l, small-d) theory of politics. In this view, politics is a kind of structured contest. Factions and parties battle over interests and policies, but the field of play on which they battle is ring-fenced by a set of common institutions and norms. Inside that fence is “normal politics” — the subject of legitimate political dispute. Outside that fence is out of bounds, in violation of shared standards.
The “game” of politics is defined by explicit rules (e.g., the Constitution), enforced by various legally empowered referees (e.g., courts and the executive branch). But it is also defined by implicit norms, unwritten rules more informally enforced by the press, academia, and civil society. These latter institutions are referees as well, but their enforcement power operates not through law but through trust. Their transpartisan authority exists solely because participants in the game agree it does.
The idea is that when political participants step outside the ring fence and violate some shared rule or norm, they are called on it by referees and must pay some penalty, reputational or otherwise. In this way, political contests are bounded and contained, prevented from spilling over into violence or illiberalism. That’s how democracy—indeed, any framework of cooperation among large numbers of diverse people—works. Institutions and norms provide structure and limits, the shared scaffolding of cooperation.
That is the classic, some might say naive, view. But there has always been a powerful strain in conservatism (think the John Birch Society) that resists seeing itself as a participant in the game at all. It sees the game itself, its rules and referees, as captured by the other side, operating for the other side’s benefit. Any claim of transpartisan authority is viewed with skepticism, as a kind of ruse or tool through which one tribe seeks to dominate another.
That’s the view Limbaugh and others in right-wing media have consistently articulated. And it has found an increasingly receptive audience.
And so people like me sputter on the sidelines. It doesn’t matter how often people with nothing more untoward in their hearts except to point out that the law has been broken, people like my friend will call us names and post ridiculous memes and deny the evidence that truly is right in front of them. My friend lives in an echo chamber in which everyone is repeating the lies, in particular their news sources.
I honestly don’t know how to remedy the situation we find ourselves in. It’s tough to believe in the American ideal of the First Amendment when it forces us to tolerate people like Alex Jones (the proprietor of an unhinged, far-right conspiracy theory radio show and website), whose reason for existing on God’s beautiful blue earth is unclear at best. How a man who earns his living telling public lies (actually, I think he makes his living selling merchandise—T-shirts and suchlike) manages to stay out of jail is beyond me. In fact, in a child custody lawsuit (ex-wife says he’s unstable) Jones’s lawyer admitted Jones is a “performance artist” who is “playing a character,” though that makes no difference to Jones’s equally unhinged followers.
It’s a slippery slope, trying to make distinctions in the First Amendment, but I think that’s where we have to look. The European Union, which also prizes a free press, has passed some strong laws against hate speech. That’s a start, and we can look to the EU for what’s working and what’s not. There must be a way to preserve our free press.
But I think eventually as a society we’ll have to address the concept of fake news. (A good definition is this: Fake News is the deliberate attempt to publish hoaxes and/or disinformation for the purpose of profit or influence. That is, for the purpose of keeping the tribe in power.) As we learned in the documentary The Brainwashing of My Dad, when the filmmaker’s father could no longer watch Fox (Not)News, he gradually returned to the mild-mannered person he had been before he started watching. This truth is demonstrated even more dramatically in the story of Derek Black, a former white nationalist whose father started the first and largest white nationalist website, whose godfather is David Duke … and who went off to college and learned new things and met new people (got out of his echo chamber, in other words) and completely changed his way of thinking (read this post-Charlottesville interview with him here). Eventually he came out—that is, disavowed his racist mind-set and disavowed white nationalism altogether—publicly, first in a letter to the Southern Poverty Law Center and later with an op-ed in the New York Times.
I find Black’s story very moving and inspiring.
It gives me hope.
* It’s been a strange couple of years, actually.
** This was on the day of President Obama’s farewell speech and public (right-wing) outrage about some comment Meryl Streep made.
*** Full disclosure: I’m willing to bet it’s the abortion issue, even though we have the data that shows countries with free access to abortion have lower rates of abortion than those which don’t, just for starters. Even though she would scream bloody murder about Muslims trying to establish sharia law in this country, and her desire to eliminate legal abortion would essentially establish “Christian sharia” law. But you knew it was a rhetorical question, right?