That’s Infotainment!

My most recurring thought on January 6th was that if the insurrectionists had been Black, they’d be dead.  They would have been tear-gassed, beaten, thrown in jail and murdered.  Tanks would still be patrolling the Washington mall.

If anyone is still on the fence about white privilege, uncertain what it is and how pervasive it remains in our society, they needn’t look any further than the pictures of those who stormed the U.S. Capitol and ransacked congressional chambers and offices, their feet propped up on the desk of the Speaker of the House, getting caught in the act by police, and then not getting arrested but instead walking freely out the door.

Imagine if they were Black.  Or Latino.  Or Indigenous.  Do you honestly believe the reaction would have been the same?  If so, then I implore you to step outside your own circle and listen to people you haven’t listened to before.

Of course that speaks to the broader mechanisms at work which led to the riots in the first place.  We have justly recognized Donald Trump as the leader and the primary inciter of the plot to overthrow our democracy; but we must confront the reality that he is only the tip of the iceberg, go deeper and recognize not just the man who incited it, but the system that propped him up in the first place, the system which sustained him and all those like him for years, long before 2016.

That system is the modern infrastructure through which we access our information, comprised mainly of social media outlets and cable news.

With the accelerated rise of each over the last ten years, Americans now essentially occupy different realities.  I have no doubt that the insurrectionists who broke into the Capitol believed they were doing the right thing.  According to the information they are constantly fed through Fox News personalities or any of the various fringe outlets they follow on social media, Donald Trump won the election and their government is therefore being stolen from them by culprits ranging from a broad covert socialist movement to Bill Gates.

Yet the fact that Donald Trump was even able to ascend to power in the first place, mostly by lying and stoking paranoia proves that he must have had a platform, multiple in fact, that gave him the stage.  I recall in 2011 how every cable news network—whether allegedly right or left leaning—was perfectly willing to have him on as a guest, while he spouted out baseless conspiracy theories that Barack Obama wasn’t born in America, that he therefore snuck in and unlawfully became President.

Why did they have him on in the first place?  Was he an expert on…anything?  Had he been conducting any sort of hard reporting on the ground and thus been able to provide some kind of groundbreaking news relevant to the public?  The kind based on actual evidence?  No.

He was entertaining.  A personality who was good for ratings.  Who liked attention and who knew how to wield it, as demonstrated since the 1980s throughout his many public feuds perpetuated by New York tabloids.  When it came to playing the media to boost his profile, Trump was a true maestro, and he would prove to remain so for years into the future.

A liar needs a stage to consolidate power and Trump’s success is owed to the pervasive entertainment culture of our modern news media and to his mastery of it.

In their eagerness to follow him, driven by their need for high ratings, the cable news networks became his all-too-willing accomplices.  In the meantime so did we, all of us who continued to watch these programs and give them our viewership.

We created this monster and now we’ve seen the consequences quite literally breaching the walls of our institutions and our very system of governance.

In answering the inevitable question of what we do from here, it’s worth noting that We the People can still exercise our power by simply making different decisions on how we get our information, on what we will and will not watch, or read.  In making these personal decisions, it’s worth asking ourselves the following questions:

Why do I trust this program/person?





Are they providing evidence to back their claims?





Can I access the evidence myself and if so, am I even willing to investigate the evidence myself?





Have they made a claim in the past, one that was initially disregarded, dismissed or considered outrageous, that turned out to be true?





Is what they’re saying backed up by other reputable sources?





How do I define reputable?





Am I watching this because I want to be informed, or because I want to be entertained and merely feel informed?



Do I like this person’s personality?





Should their personality be relevant?





How would I react if they were merely reporting news and facts without adding their opinion?

Any broader political or legal action, beyond these personal decisions each of us can and should make, naturally raises new questions concerning free speech.

Or does it? Maybe all we need to do is study history, and remember the federal regulation which existed for nearly forty years before it’s revocation in 1987: the Fairness Doctrine.  It required that TV and Radio stations present all sides of an issue for the sake of an informed electorate.  The Reagan administration revoked the policy, believing that such considerations were better left to the will of the free market.

If at face value that seems sensible, consider whether the evolution of our media over the past 30 years tells a different story. In the mid-nineties, conservative talk radio took off with leading personalities (not reporters or journalists) like Rush Limbaugh. Shortly thereafter, perhaps picking up on radio’s cue, two competing cable news networks debuted within the same year–Fox News and MSNBC. Perhaps at first, the coverage on either network seemed straight enough and relatively light on its editorializing. That would change as other personalities like Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Chris Matthews proved better for ratings, people less known for their reporting than for how they reported, for their personality and manner.

Today the cable news landscape is dominated by these prototypes, whether it’s a show’s host or the rotating usual suspects of spin doctors they consistently invite to speak, the talking heads telling us how to think and how to feel.

Editorializing is nothing new, nor is it particularly dangerous. What is dangerous is the editorializing being disguised as news, television shows–governed by the rules of entertainment before journalism–being equated to news programs that report facts absent of spin or opinions. Put it this way, if you’re wondering why we don’t have any more Walter Cronkites, David Brinkeys or Tom Brokaws, it’s not because they don’t exist. It’s because their modern equivalents have been overshadowed by the people who bring in more money for the networks.

So while most of us think we’re getting informed, we’re really just getting amped up with more of what we want to hear–not from reporters who report facts, but by people who think like us and present information (or don’t present it) in a way that will keep us in our own ideological bubble.

It frankly astonishes me that people remain perplexed as to why we’re so divided in this country. And while it might be too late to close Pandora’s box or fully reinstate the Fairness Doctrine in a modern media landscape so vast and diverse–at least without provoking mobs of people rallying against what they view as some ominous government censorship–we do need to begin properly distinguishing the news from propaganda.

Laws decree that motion pictures and television shows are given content ratings, that music with any profanity be labeled explicit. It might be time to issue similar regulations for television shows or internet channels posing as news, for personalities quietly reassuring us that we can count on them to provide all the facts we need, so long as they reserve the right to tell us how to feel about them.

Unless we take serious steps in regulating our media and information infrastructure we should expect our country to grow more divided, the mobs more frequent, and We the People to become a greater danger to ourselves.

Why We Are Voting Blue in 2020

When we started out in February of this year, we didn’t imagine we’d be making too many direct political or social statements.  We did hope to shed light on the deeper ideas and underlying philosophies that typically steer American politics, such as the size and scope of government or the importance of voter participation, or constructive ways to have a discussion about politics.

The intention was to try and distill the current political landscape from the corrosive, long-established binary model of “Republican and Democrat” or “Red and Blue” into a set of specific issues, complex at times but no less manageable, all of which are more universally relevant than we might realize—whether it’s climate change, racial justice or immigration.

We wanted to make sure the writing never felt like a lecture or came across as preachy in any way.  This was due not to any lack of enthusiasm on our part, but rather what we felt was an understanding of more effective communication, of understanding that nobody likes a lecture unless maybe they already agree with it.

However, this year more than ever before, it seems the virtues of fairness, decency, critical thinking, compassion and listening are on the line.  The deeper underlying principles that govern how we communicate with one another, far deeper than those we hoped to talk about, are themselves at stake.  

This is an election on what we normalize in our collective character and consciousness for generations.     

In the Presidential Election we have one candidate who has demonstrated a fairly consistent philosophy throughout his career while the other demonstrates no real philosophy outside his own brand and the hyper-inflated paranoia he thinks will elevate him politically, beginning almost ten years ago with his crusade to have President Obama prove he is a citizen.

We have one who trusts science and empirical data; while the other says “I don’t think science knows,” in response to what a broad, worldwide coalition of scientific research concludes as a climate crisis caused and further aggravated by human activity.

The reason that listening, critical thinking and empiricism, open discussion and compassion are all at stake is because our current president has proved to be their walking antithesis.  Equally, and quite successfully, he has labeled anyone calling out his vulgarity as too politically correct or sensitive, which has only encouraged a growing culture of not listening, unfounded conspiracies, bigotry, sexism and delusion.  

Examples of his oafish and repulsive behavior include but are certainly not limited to a gross imitation of a reporter with a disability, and saying that John McCain “is a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”  

The will to survive and maintain one’s honor in the face of overwhelming despair and torture is indeed heroic; and anyone who has heard the story of John McCain’s five and a half years in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp must recognize Trump’s statement as not politically incorrect, but simply indecent, heartless and foolish.  Donald Trump never served in the armed forces.  He’s never tasted real danger in his life.  

Other examples include drawing an equal degree of blame between white supremacists–some of whom Trump declared to be “very fine people”–and those who stood up to them in Charlottesville, Virginia; and then most recently, the mocking of those taking COVID-19 seriously as he continues to hold open rallies with no social distancing or requirements for masks while the pandemic has now claimed over 200,000 American lives.

To that point we’ve provided a tweet posted by Donald Trump 23 hours ago as of this writing, drawing a comparison between one of these rallies, and a speaking event for Joe Biden in which people are exercising responsible safety measures and social distancing.  Yes indeed, there is a stark difference.       

Joe Biden has demonstrated a personal and political philosophy founded mainly on compassion, critical thinking and facts.  Donald Trump evidently isn’t deep enough to think about anything other than himself.

Beyond the scope of the Presidency, we are witnessing the mutation of a political party into a warped and twisted cult of personality that seems to honor and endorse whatever Donald Trump tells them.   

In 2013 the Republican-led Supreme Court voted to cut a critical component of the Voting Rights Act which required districts with a history of voter suppression to get federal approval before making any changes to their election laws.  This ultimately led to the closure of more than 1,600 polling places throughout the South, typically in Black communities and communities of color.  House Democrats passed a resolution to restore the Voting Rights Act, but it has yet to be passed in the Senate.  It still sits on the desk of Mitch McConnell, the Republican Majority Leader, as it has for over 200 days.    

In Texas meanwhile, 750 polling places closed following the Court ruling.  Most of these closures took place between the 2014 and 2018 mid-term elections. 

Just weeks ago, the state’s Republican governor issued an order to limit the number of places voters could hand-deliver their mail-in ballots to a single location per county—clearly problematic for the populous Harris and Travis Counties for example, which had previously designated a dozen and four drop-off locations respectively.  

Of course, the Republicans’ latest egregious attempt at holding onto power regardless of popular will reveals itself in the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett for Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.  She was confirmed three days ago by the Republican-led U.S. Senate—eight days before our election.  In 2016, a whole 293 days before the election, the Senate, still led by Republicans, refused to hold a hearing for President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland.  Their reasoning for delaying the vote four years ago was that it was too close to an election, and that the American people should have a say on the selection of the next Justice.  

Of course, with a dim fraction of that time remaining this year, that reasoning somehow no longer applies in the confirmation of their own nominee.  The double-standard and hypocrisy is loud and clear. 

The Republican Party itself has been morally declining for years, as they have proven to care strikingly little about actual democracy and equal representation than they do about holding onto their power.  They know the majority of eligible voters don’t stand with them.  The people don’t stand with them.  The country doesn’t stand with them.  And consider this additional fact.  In the last 30 years, a Republican candidate for President has won the popular vote just one time.  The Democratic candidate has won six times. 

Yet the Supreme Court now has a 6-3 conservative majority.  Something’s not adding up.  Given one party’s long enough history of suppressing the vote—alleging voter fraud whenever they can, in a country where less than half of eligible voters even vote at all—it should be pretty clear why that is. 

We can debate all day the size and scope of government in our lives, the strengths and pitfalls of capitalism, and a host of other ideas that invite different points of view.  But the modern-day Republican Party and their chosen leader and champion have long outstayed their welcome.  It’s time to vote them out.  

We are voting for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, along with Democrats up and down the ballot; though not just because they are, quite simply, everything the Republicans are not.  We cannot vouch for every candidate individually, but we can say that as a whole, over the past twenty years, they have done far more to expand voting rights and access to affordable health care, they’ve worked far more to cultivate a cleaner and more sustainable environment, and they’ve fought far more for equal justice. 

In this election, more so than ever, there is really no comparison.  

We are voting for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.  We are voting Blue up and down the ballot.  We encourage you to do the same.  

Please vote.  And if you can, vote early and in-person.  

Thank You.   

In Focus: The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020

 

John Lewis has received a great deal of praise over the last several weeks following his passing in July. 

Everyone from former presidents and congressional leaders to the innumerable voices in social media have highlighted his legacy fighting for Civil Rights both on the streets as he marched with Martin Luther King and in the halls of Congress where he served as a Georgia Representative for over 30 years.

We’ve heard about his near-death encounter with Alabama State Troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge while peacefully marching for the equal right to vote, and his multiple arrests in the name of what he called getting into good, necessary trouble.

What few people may realize is how the very thing for which he fought has been jeopardized these last seven years, and how its restoration formed a driving cause to which he dedicated his remaining years as a legislator and citizen.  

In 2013, the Supreme Court removed a key component of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one that required districts with a history of voter suppression to get federal approval, or preclearance, before making any changes to their election laws.  

The Court ruled that the provision as it stood was based on antiquated data, essentially stating that the barriers which once disenfranchised Black voters in those districts no longer exist. If the Federal Government wanted to reclaim its oversight, the Court ruled, it would have to do so based on contemporary data.

So while the preclearance provision still exists, it’s no longer being applied, since the specific districts once required to get the federal approval are no longer required to do so.  Many of these districts are comprised of southern Black communities. 

“Today the Supreme Court stuck a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” said Lewis at the time of the ruling. “They’re saying, in effect that history cannot repeat itself.  But I say come and walk in my shoes.”

While it’s true that the more overt forms of voter suppression are gone–such as poll taxes and literacy tests–many others still remain such as the restricting of early voting, the arbitrary re-drawing of district maps, strict voter identification laws, and the closing of over 1,600 polling places between 2012 and 2018 in those same districts once required to get federal approval before making any of these changes.  In Texas, 750 polling places closed following the Court ruling.  Most of these closures took place between the 2014 and 2018 mid-term elections.     

In December, the House passed a bill to restore the Voting Rights Act.  Congressman Lewis led the drafting of the bill, which was based on the updated data the Court had ruled necessary.  After the congressman’s passing in July, the bill was renamed in his honor–The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020.    

It has yet to be passed in the Senate.  It currently sits on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk, as it has for well over 200 days. 

Without a Democratic majority in the Senate, and while President Trump remains in office with his power to veto, it is unlikely the bill will be signed into law.  

Note: Election Day has yet to be declared a federal holiday, though it consistently falls on work days in which many Americans don’t have the time to get to their polling place and vote.  Colombus Day, meanwhile, is still a federal holiday.  Let’s all vote this year, yes?

 

Here are resources to take action.

https://support.naacp.org/a/john-lewis-voting-rights-act-passes-house”>https://support.naacp.org/a/john-lewis-voting-rights-act-passes-house

*The following data was compiled by the Leadership Conference Education Fund, a research arm of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights: http://civilrightsdocs.info/pdf/reports/Democracy-Diverted.pdf