Category Archives: Random Blogging

Hope And Fear In Rural America

At this point in America’s political history, it’s a rare person who hasn’t seen those ubiquitous red and blue maps. Different states show different voting patterns, but there is one element the political maps all have in common: cities with a half-million residents or more are all bright blue, and rural areas are all red.

Suburbs may be turning purple, but not rural America.

A number of political operatives have been counseling Democrats to engage with rural voters, to try to bridge the cultural divide between “cosmopolitan” urbanites and “resentful” rural dwellers. My own response to those entreaties has ranged from tepid to cold–after all, wouldn’t it be a waste of resources better deployed on efforts to turn out the millions who didn’t bother to go to the polls in 2016? Given what I have read about the deep connection between rural voters and the GOP, outreach to those precincts seemed–and still seems–unlikely to change many votes.

That said, an eloquent column from the New York Times has made me reconsider.

George Goehl runs a federation of community-based organizations across the country that bring poor and working-class people together to win economic and racial justice, and he has a warning: when liberals and progressives ignore rural Americans, they clear the way for the White Nationalists who are already there.

This summer I visited a bunch of small towns across the country, and I saw signs that white nationalists are becoming more active. Just drive by the town square in Pittsboro, N.C., at 5 p.m. on any given Saturday and you are likely to seewhite nationalists rallying to protect a Confederate monument.

This weekend, I’ll head back home to southern Indiana, where members of the 3 Percenters, a far-right militia, showed up with guns and knives at the Bloomington Farmers Market earlier this year. The leader of the white supremacist organization American Identity Movement even paid a visit. I’ve been organizing for 20 years in rural communities and have never seen this level of public activity by white supremacist groups.

Goehl’s organization works in both urban and rural communities, and he warns against the assumption that rural minds cannot be changed.

As part of this work, our organizers had over 10,000 conversations with people in small towns across the country over the past year. We spoke with neighbors in Amish country, visited family farms in Iowa and sat on front porches in Appalachia — communities that have experienced hard economic times and went solidly for Donald Trump in 2016.

Although these communities may be fertile ground for the Trump administration and other white nationalist organizations, they are also places where people can come together across race and class to solve the big problems facing everyday people. That starts by recognizing one another’s humanity — and with honest conversations….

For those who have given up on rural communities: Please reconsider. So many of these places need organizing to win improved conditions. Despite the stereotypes, rural people are not static in their political views or in the way they vote. Single white rural women and young rural white people represent two of the greatest leftward swings in the 2018 midterms, moving 17 and 16 points respectively toward Democrats. They played a key role in Democratic wins across the Midwest.

Goehl concedes that a substantial number of rural residents are “as racist as you would expect,” and notes the resurgence of the KKK in rural America. On the other hand, he insists  that plenty of rural folks reject efforts to foster racial resentments.

In June of 2018, my organization’s affiliates staged nearly 780 rallies across the country to protest the family separation crisis. Half of the rallies were in counties that voted for Donald Trump. Small towns like Angola, Ind., and Ketchum, Idaho, with populations of 8,000 and 2,700 respectively, were among the communities that came together to support migrant families.

People followed those rallies with rural cookouts, deep in so-called Trump Country, to gather and talk about family and the plight of migrants, and pass the hat to post bond for migrant families.

It’s good to be reminded that no constituency is monolithic. Turning those red expanses blue, however–or even a pale shade of purple–still looks like a very steep climb.

 

 

Emily Post Would Be Horrified

I was scrolling through my Facebook feed the other day. One of my friends had posted a recent example of Donald Trump’s juvenile name-calling, and one of his friends had commented that “you can buy education, but you can’t buy class.”

So true.

Class doesn’t require money, or a privileged upbringing. There isn’t even a correlation. (Barack Obama oozed class; his “Look at me, I’m rich” successor is wholly without it.) In this usage, it refers to that old-fashioned thing we used to call manners.

Time Magazine recently had an article about Emily Post, whose name has come to be identified with proper decorum, and it reminded us that “good manners” don’t have anything to do with which fork to use or the proper way to address nobility. Post made it very clear that people who thought wealth or status entitled them to count themselves among the classy elite were wrong.

She insisted that good breeding was far more than knowledge of, and compliance with, the rules: “Best Society is not a fellowship of the wealthy, nor does it take to exclude those who are not of exulted birth; but it is an association of gentle folk, of which good form in speech, charm of manner, knowledge of the social amenities, and instinctive consideration for the feelings of others, are the credentials by which society the world over recognize it’s chosen members.”

It’s hard to read this description about who qualifies to be considered in Post’s “Best Society” without recognizing how completely it is at variance with the behavior of Donald Trump, who could never be accused of “good form” in speech, who is the antithesis of charm, who displays no knowledge of social amenities–and who has never publicly displayed the slightest consideration, instinctive or not, for the feelings of anyone.

[Post] also recommended ignoring “elephants at large in the garden,” otherwise known as wealthy know-it-alls: “Why a man, because he has millions, should assume they confer omniscience in all branches of knowledge, it something which may be left to the psychologist to answer.”

Emily Post, meet the Dunning-Kruger effect!

This is what confounds me: I understand partisanship; I understand that placing “conservatives” on the Court is important to religious fundamentalists, and that tax breaks are catnip to the greedy rich. I understand that Trump’s racist promises to expel immigrants and harass Muslims resonated with the substantial number of voters who are also racist.I am prepared to believe that people who wanted these outcomes held their noses and voted for the vulgarian who promised them.

But we have had three years of acute embarrassment, three years of Presidential behaviors that most people would punish their children for exhibiting. Is this the face of America that these voters want the world to see? Aside from the massive amounts of substantive harm being done by this buffoon and his corrupt and inept administration, there is the less quantifiable–but no less real– damage being done to America’s image, at home as well as abroad.

Our children see the head of state modeling behaviors we want them to avoid: bullying, lying, tantrums, self-aggrandizement, aggressive ignorance. (And if the President of the United States can’t spell or construct a grammatical or articulate sentence, why should they have to learn?)

Our allies are horrified–and wonder if this administration is an aberration, or whether America is no longer to be trusted.

And yet, his “base” continues to support him.

Emily Post would be appalled. I certainly am.

 

 

Speaking Of Christianity…

Yesterday’s post was about the ongoing effort of Christian culture-warriors to maintain their privileged position in American society–their insistence that the laws of the land reflect their particular theological perspectives.

That effort is nothing new. What is new is their diminished percentage of the American population. A recent study by Pew was headlined “Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.”

In Pew Research Center telephone surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019, 65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians when asked about their religion, down 12 percentage points over the past decade. Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009.

Both Protestantism and Catholicism are experiencing losses of population share. Currently, 43% of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51% in 2009. And one-in-five adults (20%) are Catholic, down from 23% in 2009. Meanwhile, all subsets of the religiously unaffiliated population – a group also known as religious “nones” – have seen their numbers swell. Self-described atheists now account for 4% of U.S. adults, up modestly but significantly from 2% in 2009; agnostics make up 5% of U.S. adults, up from 3% a decade ago; and 17% of Americans now describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” up from 12% in 2009. Members of non-Christian religions also have grown modestly as a share of the adult population.

The Pew study found that both belief and observance had declined; attendance at religious services is down, especially among younger respondents, reflecting what the report called a “generation gap.” Some forty percent of Millennials are “nones.”

Given the fact that it is evangelical Protestants, rather than members of mainline denominations, who have been most likely to demand prayer in public schools, attempt to post religious texts on public buildings, and protest laws protective of LGBTQ citizens, I was particularly interested in the following:

The share of U.S. adults who are white born-again or evangelical Protestants now stands at 16%, down from 19% a decade ago. The shrinking white evangelical share of the population reflects both demographic changes that have occurred in the United States (where white people constitute a declining share of the population) and broader religious changes in American society (where the share of all adults who identify with Christianity has declined).

The survey reported demographic information only, and didn’t get into motivations, but in addition to the normal historical ebb and flow of religious fervor, it seems likely that the embrace of Donald Trump by evangelicals has repelled people–especially young people. An article by Peter Wehner in the Atlantic makes a point that others have echoed.

The enthusiastic, uncritical embrace of President Trump by white evangelicals is among the most mind-blowing developments of the Trump era. How can a group that for decades—and especially during the Bill Clinton presidency—insisted that character counts and that personal integrity is an essential component of presidential leadership not only turn a blind eye to the ethical and moral transgressions of Donald Trump, but also constantly defend him? Why are those who have been on the vanguard of “family values” so eager to give a man with a sordid personal and sexual history a mulligan?

Wehner worries about the likely consequences of that blatant hypocrisy, a worry that other evangelicals share.

While on the Pacific Coast last week, I had lunch with Karel Coppock, whom I have known for many years and who has played an important role in my Christian pilgrimage. In speaking about the widespread, reflexive evangelical support for the president, Coppock—who is theologically orthodox and generally sympathetic to conservatism—lamented the effect this moral freak show is having, especially on the younger generation. With unusual passion, he told me, “We’re losing an entire generation. They’re just gone. It’s one of the worst things to happen to the Church.”

For years, these “pious” Christians have mounted assaults on separation of church and state. They have insisted that laws should favor their beliefs; they take as a given their right to dominate the culture. They continue to diminish and stigmatize those they label “sinners,” and fight even modest efforts to recognize the equal civic status of those others.

I’m sorry for people like Wehner who truly “walked the walk” and are helplessly watching their co-religionists betray their faith. But I’m not at all sorry that many more Americans have now seen–and rejected– the hypocrisy concealed behind a curtain of false piety.

 

 

The Forty Percent

A recent column by Gary Younge, a Guardian columnist has identified the most dangerous problem illuminated by Donald Trump’s erratic and incompetent Presidency–and it isn’t his obvious mental illness.

It’s the 40% of Americans who still approve of his performance.

As Younge notes, there is no serious debate about Trump’s mental disorders among most observers.

Divining, assessing and adjudicating the mental health of this US president has become more than just a parlour game. Following a 2017 conference, 27 psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health experts wrote a book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, arguing it was their moral and civic “duty to warn” America that “for psychological reasons”, Trump was “more dangerous than any president in history”. They diagnosed him with everything from “severe character pathology” to “delusional disorder”, which can be added to the more common verdicts of “narcissistic personality disorder” and “antisocial personality disorder” which are regularly offered.

Younge also notes the signs of deterioration, as the pressures of impeachment mount, and polls showing that he is likely to lose his bid for re-election proliferate.  Trump’s bizarre behaviors are more frequent (although somehow that doesn’t seem possible), and his melt-downs more embarrassing and concerning. It is, as Younge writes, “deeply worrying” that the powers of the presidency are in the hands of a man who is “at one and the same time so brittle, aggressive, vindictive, ridiculous and self-obsessed.”

As dangerous as this administration is, however–as much harm as it is doing and may still do–Younge argues that it would be a mistake to think that simply replacing Trump and the cabal he has assembled with rational and honest public servants will solve the problem.

The problem, Younge says, isn’t just Trump. It’s how he got to the Oval Office. It is the nearly 63 million people who voted for him, and the 35-40% who still tell pollsters they approve of his performance.

For along with Trump’s personal frailties is a series of political characteristics that underpins his anomie. He is a misogynist, a racist, a xenophobe and a nationalist. Those are not psychological descriptors but political ones, fortified by systems and ideology.

As such, his behaviour has been irascible but hardly erratic. The rhetorical objects of his disdain are not random. He has not lashed out at the National Rifle Association, the religious right or white people. Politically, his tantrums invariably find their mark in the weak, the poor, the dark, the female, the Muslim, the marginalised and the foreigner. (He will attack powerful people, but not simply for existing. They must cross him first.)

These inclinations were clear when he stood for the presidency. He has been every bit as bigoted, undisciplined, indiscreet, thin-skinned and braggadocious as his campaign promised. And he won.

This was not because people didn’t see those things, but because they either didn’t care, cared about other things more, preferred him to the alternative, or simply didn’t show up. As such, his victory marked a high point for the naked appeal of white supremacy in particular and rightwing populism in general, and a low point for the centre-left, neoliberal agenda.

In other words, Younge tells us, Trump’s bigotries–his particular form of mental illness– enjoy significant, if not majority, support. His hatreds are shared–or at least not considered disqualifying– by millions of people.

That is our problem. And it’s chilling.

 

A Meditation On Media

Is our current media environment to blame for America’s social dysfunction? Two critical questions:

In a large and diverse country, the ability of citizens to participate in the democratic process on the basis of informed decisions is heavily dependent upon the quality, factual accuracy, objectivity and completeness of the information available to them. Do Americans have the ability to select credible information from the incessant competition for eyeballs and clicks?

In a world where the news and entertainment environments are increasingly fragmented, where a media landscape populated with broadly shared information and common cultural references is disappearing, can Americans even conduct a truly public conversation?

Our ability to devise answers to these questions is constrained both by America’s commitment to freedom of speech and press—a commitment set out in and protected by the First Amendment—and a recognition that efforts by government to control what citizens can access online would be more dangerous than the current situation (assuming such control would even be possible in the age of the Internet).

So how did we get here? And far more importantly, how do we get out?

A series of new technologies challenged and ultimately defeated journalistic norms that had developed over the years. Cable television ushered in a virtually unlimited number of channels, upending government rules created for an era in which the federal government owned and auctioned off the limited number of usable broadcast frequencies. The numerous new cable networks made possible by the new technologies were unconstrained by the earlier requirement that their use of the airwaves be consistent with “the public interest.”  The subsequent development of the Internet greatly reduced the costs that had previously prevented the entry of numbers of would-be publishers by dramatically reducing the  investment needed to compete with established newspapers and magazines. Suddenly, virtually anyone with a computer, an internet connection and the ability to generate content could claim to be news sources. Professional journalists found themselves competing for readers’ attention with thousands of webpages, in many cases produced by persons and organizations unacquainted with and unrestrained by professional norms and ethics.

By the time the digital revolution took hold, much of cable news (and virtually all of talk radio before it) had already reverted to the explicit partisanship of earlier days. Fox News may have been the most effective; it shrewdly attacked and undermined the ethic of objectivity by elevating balance as the metric by which journalism was to be judged. The network’s motto, “Fair and balanced” reconceptualized journalism as stenography: suggesting that only “he said, she said” reporting was “fair,” and that failure to devote equivalent air time or column inches to “both sides” equated to media bias. Efforts to achieve “balance” (and thus “fairness”) led to reporters giving equal time to arguments for and against settled science or law; the reality of climate change, for example, was portrayed as an ongoing debate, despite the fact that some 97% of scientists are on one side of that debate and only a few outliers (mostly financed by fossil fuel interests) continue to take an opposing view. Such an approach to reporting leaves readers with the impression that matters of established fact are still unresolved. Balance so conceived does not require objectivity; worse, the pursuit of balance perversely operates to relieve journalists of a vital part of their job: determining, verifying and reporting what is and is not factual, so that the public can make genuinely informed decisions.

The great promise of the Internet was that it would make much more information available, and that Americans’ access to information would no longer be limited by the gatekeeping function of the legacy media. Online, many more stories could be told and they could be told in much more depth. Those undeniable gains, however, have come at a considerable and largely unanticipated cost—notably, the return of an intensely partisan media, wide dissemination of spin, conspiracy theories and outright propaganda, a massive loss of local reporting (especially about local government), the hegemony of new and enormous online platforms (most prominently Google, Facebook and Twitter), growing and corrosive public uncertainty about the accuracy of all news, and the near disappearance of a truly mass media.

It’s one thing to disagree about something that everyone can see. Different people can look at a photo, a piece of art, or a draft of a pending bill, and disagree about its meaning or, in the case of proposed legislation, whether it is a good idea, or would be effective in achieving its purported purpose. In a fragmented media environment that gives disproportionate time and space to assorted “pundits” of varying philosophies and degrees of probity (talking heads are much cheaper than investigative reporters), however, the American people are far too often not seeing the same thing, hearing the same analyses, or occupying the same reality.

Today’s media environment is reminiscent of the time before cellphones when a friend and I agreed to meet for lunch at “the tearoom.” Back then, two department stores in our city had tearooms; I went to one while she went to the other. This made conversation impossible, in much the same way that our current media environment, which places citizens in different “rooms” or conversations, impedes genuine communication.

There is a difference between an audience and a public. Journalism is about more than dissemination of news and other information; it’s about the creation of shared awareness. It’s about occupying the same reality (or eating at the same tearoom).  It’s about enabling and facilitating meaningful communication. As the information environment continues to fracture into smaller and more widely dispersed niches, Americans are losing the common ground upon which public communication and discourse depend. When cities had one or two widely-read newspapers, subscribers were exposed to the same headlines and ledes, even if they didn’t read through the articles. When large numbers of Americans tuned into Walter Cronkite’s newscast or to one of his two network competitors, they heard reports of the same events.  Recent research showing that political polarization increases after local newspapers close shouldn’t surprise us.

If today’s citizens do not share a reasonable amount of accurate information, if different constituencies access different media resources and occupy incommensurate realities, what happens to the concept of a public? To the ideal of informed debate? How do such citizens engage in self-government? If I point to a piece of furniture and say it’s a table, and you insist that, no, it is a chair, how do we decide how to use it? Worse still, if my description of the furniture goes to one audience, and your contrary description goes to another, to whom do we transmit a correction? How do we counter spin, propaganda or even honest mistakes when we have no way of determining who received those original, erroneous messages?

If the ultimate effects of our current information environment are unknown, the intermediate effects are less ambiguous. Citizens who choose different sources for their  news and information tend to choose sources that solidify and confirm their tribal affiliations, reinforce their fears, and make it more difficult to understand the perspectives of those with whom they disagree. Worse, the growth of uncertainty about the validity of what we encounter online has undermined trust in a wide variety of social and governmental institutions. Today, the most effective way to censor something is to sow distrust rather than by suppressing or muzzling the speech itself.

In the November, 2016 election, top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined. The ability of social media platforms to target recipients for information based upon sophisticated analyses of individual preferences threatens the very existence of a genuinely public sphere in which a true marketplace of ideas could operate. We are clearly in uncharted waters.

The obvious question is: what can be done? How can Americans take advantage of the substantial benefits that come with access to virtually unlimited information while avoiding the pitfalls of atomization, inaccuracy and outright propaganda? How can we ensure that enough citizens share enough information to engage in informed debate and  political conversation?

It’s too late to put the genie back in the lamp.