American Liberalism & the Occult

I just watched this video about American liberalism having some origins in the occult. It reminds me of some passages from books I was recently reading (the passages are below the video).

American history is a lot more interesting than they teach in school. By the way, the guy in the video seems to be partly talking about America’s Great Awakenings. America has always been a country of religious experimentation. The deism of many of the founding father is an example of this (such as Thomas Paine writing and speaking about deism, atheism and Jesus being based on solar mythology).

What interests me the most is the time period in question is America’s Third Great Awakening which includes the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Populist Era… which set the stage for the Progressive Era. The book passages below are about the Populist Era when this Third Great Awakening became fully manifest as a movement.

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Postel, Charles (2009). The Populist Vision (Kindle Locations 5292-5356). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.

As the secretary of the People’s party in Grimes County, Texas, John W. H. Davis devoted his public energies to enacting the Populist agenda of economic, financial, and political reform. In his private contemplations, however, these reforms were closely intertwined with questions of faith. He understood that religion as practiced was “dead.” Christianity ignored the here and now with its misplaced focus on “your dead carcass after death.” Yes, Davis conceded, a “pure undefiled Christianity,” combined with an honest ballot, would bring the necessary improvements. But he was troubled by the question of whether such a secular brotherhood could still be called Christianity at all. In search for answers he turned to non-Christian beliefs. He read across a range of spiritualist and other metaphysical literature, and carefully clipped and filed in his personal papers Charles C. Post’s article about the evolution of man, apes, and the irrationality of belief in God. For Davis, it made no sense to have “a political hell on earth” and a “religious heaven by the same person.” He searched for a unified vision of spiritual and material progress. The study of “mental science” was of a piece with his investigations into census data and national legislation, inseparable parts of a single quest for human improvement.59

Davis understood the controversial nature of his religious views and kept his studies of “mental science” to himself. Because of efforts to avoid public discord, it is difficult to quantify the number of Populists who believed in spiritualism, “mental science,” or similar metaphysical systems. The task is even more complex given that many other Americans—from faithful Christians to skeptical agnostics—entertained curiosity about communicating with the spirits of the dead and other metaphysical practices. In Texas, among the signs that the Populists showed interest in their movement, the Southern Mercury extended sympathy toward the spiritualists in the face of ostracism by “religious fanatics.” Texas spiritualist associations, although small in number, only organized in districts that also happened to be Populist strongholds. The impoverished cotton farmers of Davis’s Grimes County, for example, sustained a spiritualist organization with twenty-nine official members.60

The most prominent spiritualist in Texas, Eben LaFayette Dohoney, ran as the People’s party candidate for a state judgeship. Dohoney was also one of the leading prohibitionists in the state. Although most Populists sympathized with the temperance movement, the Texas People’s party preferred “local option” restrictions on alcohol sales rather than alienating German and other voters. This tolerant gesture was largely undone in the public mind by placing Dohoney on the Populist ticket as he was well-known for his strident prohibitionist views. The spiritualists did not view alcohol abuse as a sin, the work of the devil, or a ticket to eternal damnation. But it did threaten public health. And the spiritualists’ commitment to health and fitness made them uncompromising foes of the liquor industry.61

The tangible connections between spiritual reform, health reform, and social reform brought spiritualists into the Populist ranks. The spiritualists did not confine their attention to the séance. Their belief in progress—the “continuous progressive unfoldment” of the human condition—translated into social activism. A number of spiritualists embraced an “evolutionary revolution” toward the cooperative commonwealth. The spiritualist newspaper Carrier Dove popularized legislation making the federal government responsible for financing and regulating cooperative corporations “under comprehensive and uniform laws.” Although less specific than Charles Macune’s subtreasury plan, the proposal was premised on the same state-centered and cooperativist assumptions.62

The spiritualists rejected the framework of Christianity in favor of what they understood as a scientific outlook. Like the Swedenborgians, the spiritualists used the language of modern science and based their claims on empirical evidence rather than emotion or doctrine. They viewed the discovery of the ability to communicate with the spirits of the dead as a confirmation of reason and science in the struggle against the mysterious and supernatural, just as the harnessing of electricity confirmed the scientific age. Although spiritualism bore the brunt of intense hostility from the churches and the pious, it had a considerable public presence in late nineteenth-century life. Like other cultural movements of the era, the spiritualists made extensive use of the camp meeting. Crowds five thousand to ten thousand strong gathered under spiritualist tents to hear the speeches of famous mediums. Although some of the participants were city people enjoying a rural retreat, the movement had a broad rural following. The annual camp meetings of the Mississippi Valley Spiritualists Association lasted for a month and drew thousands of participants from Texas, Minnesota, and everywhere in between.63

Spiritualism provided an attractive alternative for women. The Christian churches, with their ordained clergy and scriptural proscriptions, placed obstacles to women’s expression and equality. “Spiritualism,” its practitioners stressed, “has no oracles, no priests, no leaders. The truth, wherever found, is all it seeks.” Women thus found opportunities as trance mediums and truth seekers. Victoria Woodhull, the best-known spiritualist of the 1870s, connected spiritualism in the public mind with free love and challenges to traditional gender roles. Although most spiritualists distanced themselves from Woodhull’s free love ideas, they campaigned for women’s progress, advocating dress and dietary reform, job protection, career opportunities, and the right to vote. The spiritualists played a prominent role in the national suffrage movement, and in California the trance medium Laura de Force Gordon led the state suffrage association.64

Given their ideas about reform, spiritualists often made good Populists. The editor Annie Diggs, the silver crusader George Bowen, and the novelist Hamlin Garland were among other prominent midwestern Populists involved with spiritualism. James Vincent Sr., father of the Vincent brothers, popularized spiritualist ideas in the pages of the Nonconformist. His wife had been a spiritualist, and after her death he grew dissatisfied with religious interpretations of the afterlife. “While for myself I have no faith in the teachings of the bible,” he conceded, “I cannot deny the doctrine of immortality.” He found the solution to otherwise unexplainable phenomena in spiritualism, which provided empirical proof that “the mind is active everywhere.” Only the scientific methods of the séance allowed for the perception of this electricity-like force.65

Spiritualism played a large role in California Populism. Marion Cannon, exercising his authority as president of the state Farmer’s Alliance, pointedly ruled against a candidate for membership who did not believe in a supreme being. This ruling, however, served to allay public fears, as both the Farmers’ Alliance and the People’s party in California owed a great deal to spiritualism and related movements that flourished in the state’s climate of religious tolerance and experimentation. Here it should be kept in mind that much of the California movement had a nonreligious character, marked more by a casual drift from religious concerns than commitment to alternative beliefs. Cannon himself showed disinterest in spiritual matters, and although his wife was a committed church member, the church was one of the few organizations in which he did not take part. At the same time, a section of the reform movement in California embraced non-Christian beliefs in which a supreme being played an ambiguous part or no part at all.66

The spiritualist colony at Summerland, south of Santa Barbara, served as an organizing center for Populism. James S. Barbee, a Confederate veteran authorized by the national Farmers’ Alliance to organize on the West Coast, was closely tied to Summerland and, with the assistance of Alliance organizer Anna Ferry Smith, made it a base of statewide organizing. Burdette Cornell, a recent arrival from the Midwest known by the Populists as “our Nebraska Farm Boy,” served as the secretary of the Summerland Spiritualist Association. He traveled extensively throughout the state as a Farmers’ Alliance organizer, setting up suballiances in remote rural districts. A spiritualist cadre, which included prominent women activists such as Mary A. White and Addie Ballou, similarly helped build the Nationalist clubs and the People’s party in California.67

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Postel, Charles (2009). The Populist Vision (Kindle Locations 5357-5398). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.

Besides the spiritualists, adherents of the related belief system known as Theosophy were similarly attracted to Populism. Theosophists also approached spirituality from the modern standpoint of rational inquiry and scientific validation. However, instead of focusing on communication with the dead, they studied what they viewed as the advanced ideas of Buddhism, Hinduism, and other Asian belief systems. They also explored magic and the mystical, not out of belief in the supernatural, but in pursuit of “occult science,” that is, rational and scientific explanations for unexplained psychic phenomena. Founded by the Russian émigré Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the Theosophist movement, with headquarters in Madras, India, established branches in forty-two countries, with more than one hundred American chapters. Its followers tended to be in self-conscious revolt against the confines of traditional belief, and saw themselves as innovators on the cutting edge of a new, modern, and scientific world outlook. Their British counterparts, historian Alex Owen writes, pursued “a thoroughly modern project” with “distinctively avant-garde themes and preoccupations.” The same pursuit brought American Theosophists to Populist reform.68

Inspired by Buddhist and related ideas about the unity of life, Theosophists came to similar conclusions as the social Christians about human solidarity and social reform. They found the doctrines of Bellamy’s Nationalism especially attractive. Although Edward Bellamy himself was a social Christian, several of his closest associates, including Cyrus Field Willard, Sylvester Baxter, and other founders of Nationalism were Theosophists. In California, the Theosophists played a major role in organizing Nationalist clubs up and down the state. The influence of “occult science” spread well beyond the organized Theosophist societies, as occult lecturers and practitioners formed part of the bohemian subculture of reform. The caustically skeptical and atheistic Anna Fader Haskell found their ideas “rather absurd.” Yet, much to her chagrin, her husband Burnette had a long-standing interest in magic and named their son after the mystical Chaldaic god Astoroth.69

Mystical religion remained in the shadows of the Populist movement. It had its moment of national attention, however, with Coxey’s Army and the prominent role played by Jacob Coxey’s coleader of the march, Carl Browne. During the 1870s, Browne had served as secretary to Denis Kearney in the California Workingmen’s party agitation for Chinese exclusion. He later joined the Theosophists, who, ironically, provided some of the clearest voices on the West Coast in favor of racial tolerance. In 1893 he met Jacob Coxey, the Ohio Populist. The Californian introduced the Ohioan to both Theosophy and to the idea of organizing “Industrial Armies” as a means to bring the plight of the unemployed to public attention. The result was the famous march on Washington. Along the way, they mixed their campaign for a “good roads bill” with Theosophist teachings about Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, and immortality.

Coxey and Browne dubbed their march “The Commonweal of Christ,” and announced to crowds of spectators that their march was a manifestation of the reincarnation of Jesus and other spiritual masters. This left many observers perplexed. The official chronicler of the march, Henry Vincent, received an inquiry as to what precisely was the nature of Coxey’s religious views. To this he replied that, as far as he understood it, Coxey’s religion “was to uplift humanity, relieve the oppressed and ‘let my people go free.’” As for Coxey’s church, Vincent described it as “the big one,” which “takes in all humanity irrespective of sect divisions.” Such an explanation made sense given the liberal and inclusive environment of Populist religiosity.70

Adherents of Theosophy saw themselves as the vanguard of a global unification of religious beliefs. They represented a small part of a much broader late nineteenth-century enthusiasm in America to learn from non-Christian belief systems. The wave of interest culminated in the 1893 World Parliament of Religions held in conjunction with the Chicago World’s Fair. The organizer of the event, John Henry Barrows, a liberal theologian and minister of Chicago’s First Presbyterian Church, promoted the Parliament as “the most phenomenal fact of the Columbian Exposition.” The Parliament drew over 150,000 people from across the nation and the globe to its sessions. Reform-minded participants welcomed the opportunity to learn “what God has wrought through Buddha and Zoroaster.” They saw the event as a turning point in the quest for understanding the universal “religion of humanity” and “science of religion.” The nation’s newspapers carried detailed reports. In North Carolina, the front-page headline of the Populist Caucasian saluted the “Unique Assembly” and provided its rural readers with an account of how the followers of Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and “all religions” sought unity on the basis of “the golden rule.”71

Such liberal religious sentiments expressed in rural Populist newspapers help explain the clash over comparative religion in Dayton, Tennessee, so many years later. At the Scopes trial, Darrow queried Bryan about what he knew of Buddha and Zoroaster, of which Bryan claimed to have little familiarity. Darrow’s purpose in this line of questioning was not to ridicule Bryan for his ignorance of obscure subjects. Rather, he grilled Bryan about the existence of other belief systems for the same reason

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Lears, Jackson (2009). Rebirth of a Nation (Kindle Locations 4567-4607). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Despite the prominence of progressive cliché, the vitalist celebration of spontaneity did lead to a new, more fluid style of thought—a distrust of static formulas and unchanging traditions, a fascination with energy, growth, and process; a willingness to lay “hands upon the sacred ark of absolute permanency,” as John Dewey wrote in “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy” (1910), and recast truth-claims in more dynamic idioms. One can see this antiformalist tendency in everything from Holmes’s influential slogan about “the life of the law” (it “has not been logic; it has been experience”) to Dewey’s ideal school, whose aim was “not learning, but first living,” as a follower said in 1910, “and then learning through and in relation to this living.” Antiformalist urges energized the pragmatic turn in American philosophy, the insistence that ideas be evaluated with respect to their actual consequences in everyday life. Pragmatism was conceived by Charles Peirce, nurtured to adulthood by William James, and applied to politics and society by Dewey. It was the most influential philosophical consequence of the quest for immediate experience. The long-term results were anticlimactic. Among Dewey’s epigones, pragmatism never entirely escaped the utilitarian cast of mind; the pragmatic criterion of truth became “what works” and education for living became vocational training.

Yet the vitalist impulse itself had larger than utilitarian implications. Its significance, like its origin, was religious. It lay at the heart of a broad revolt against positivism, a rejection of a barren universe governed by inexorable laws, where everything was measurable and nothing mysterious. The real problem for many vitalists (and certainly for James) was the specter of a life (and death) without meaning. It is possible to see all the talk about “life” as a way of whistling past the graveyard of traditional Christianity. But the vitalist ferment was also a genuine attempt to explore new meanings for human existence amid the wreckage of collapsing dualities: body and soul, matter and spirit, this world and the next.

Educated Protestants, dissatisfied with desiccated theology, cast about for vital conceptions of cosmic meaning. Many explored medieval Catholic mysticism as an alternative to the banalities of the typical Sunday sermon, the sort of platitudes uttered by Henry Ward Beecher and other ministers who reduced the Protestant ethic to a mere prescription for worldly success. Buddhism and other Asian religions—discovered, imagined, and synthesized—also began to play a role in focusing popular longings. Vedanta, popularized at the Chicago World’s Fair and after by Swami Vivekenanda, and theosophy, preached by Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant, were both synthetic expressions of spiritual ferment. Paul Carus founded the magazine Open Court to carry forward the work of the World’s Parliament of Religions, begun at the Chicago Fair, to create a common ground of ecumenical discussion, which might lead to a new synthesis—a “Religion of the Future” that might appeal to believer and skeptic alike.

The results were mixed. Contributors to Open Court asked questions like “What is Life?” and then stumbled about in a soupy haze of abstractions. “The truth is, there are, as there must be, original factors in the world…and life (or chemical activity and appetency) is like gravity, one of them,” William Salter announced in 1901. “If we wish to account for them, we have to go back to the maker of all things (if there is a Maker) not to any of the things that are made.” One thing was certain: “The only salvation for society as for the individual, is from within—it is more life.” The reverence for “life” could overcome death itself. “Who knows but that that greater death which sooner or later overtakes us all…starts energies into play deeper than we had known before—that it is the death of the body, and freedom, new birth, to the soul?’

The desire for regeneration led to death’s door and beyond. Yearnings for empirical proof of an afterlife and for communication with departed loved ones accelerated the appeal of spiritualism. Here was another example of fascination with invisible force, impossible to see but unmistakable (to believers) in its consequences—tables rising from the floor, sepulchral voices, mysterious music. Even William James was intrigued. While he remained skeptical of sweaty séances in darkened rooms, he joined the American Society for Psychical Research, providing legitimacy to the quest for connection with “discarnate spirits.” His interest in spiritualism reflected his openness to all manner of evidence, no matter how bizarre or apparently inexplicable—his radical empiricism, as he called it.

Radical empiricism was the most profound intellectual consequence of the vitalist impulse. It animated James’s attempt to imagine “a world of pure experience,” a “blooming buzzing confusion” of perceptions from which we select and fashion our concepts. It validated his (and his contemporaries’) probing of religious experiences and other extreme psychic states, explorations that underscored the revelatory power of the “unclassified residuum” in mental life and the tentative, provisional character of scientific claims about it. Here and elsewhere, James stood in the midst of the transatlantic maelstrom that became

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Alan Grayson on Green Lantern

An Email From Alan Grayson – June 20, 2011

Dear Friend:

The movie Green Lantern opened on Friday, to mixed reviews.  Maybe the reviews would have been better if the movie had included this powerful exchange, from Green Lantern #76:

African-American Man: I’ve been readin’ about you . . . How you work for the blue skins . . . and how on a planet someplace you helped out the orange skins . . . and you done considerable for the purple skins!  Only there’s skins you never bother with – the black skins!  I want to know . . . how come?!  Answer me that, Mr. Green Lantern!

Green Lantern:  I  . . . can’t . . . .

I may never have the chance to talk to George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, or any of the otherMasters of the Universe who led and misled our country for eight long years.  Nor may I ever have the chance to speak to Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, or any of the other savage right-wing loons who want to finish the job that Bush et al. started.  But if I could, I might say:

Me:  I’ve been readin’ about you . . . How you work for multinational corporations like Big Oil. . . .  And how you say you built all those roads and schools and bridges in some country in Asia.   And in some othercountry in the Middle East someplace you got rid of some dictator.  Only there’s one country you never bother with – America!  I want to know . . . how come?!  Answer me that, Mr. Flag-Waiving Patriot!

Them:  I  . . . can’t . . . .

Well, I can answer that.  For a generation now, we have seen the heartless, callous erosion and destruction of all the things that make you a member of the middle class in America:

A job.

A home.

A car.

The chance to see a doctor when you are sick.

A pension or retirement account.

Social Security and Medicare.

And we’ve seen them replaced by endless war, falling home values, no pensions, lower wages, and now what Karl Marx called a “reserve army of the unemployed” – to keep wages down forever.

Even after only two years in office, as one out of 435 in the House, I can point to a lot of things that I did to preserve, protect and expand the middle class in America, and to help those of us who were falling through the cracks.

I look at our so-called leaders on the other side of the aisle, and I see nothing like that.  Only a perverse delight in eliminating programs that help my fellow Americans in need.  They’ll lead us, all right – they’ll lead us straight to ruin.

The next time you see one of them — at a town hall meeting, in their plush offices, or just on the street – ask them this:  “What have you done to help the people?  Answer me that!”

If they’re honest, they’ll say what Green Lantern said:  “I can’t.”


Alan Grayson

In brightest day,
In blackest night,
No evil shall escape my sight.
Let those who worship evil’s might,
Beware my power: Green Lantern’s Light.

“I’m a Republican because of social issues.”

The bars had just closed. She was a young attractive woman wearing a dress that accentuated her assets. She was probably a student at the local university with a bright future ahead of her. She was accompanied by a young man, also good looking and sharply dressed. They were having a discussion. As they sat down on a bench in the pedestrian mall, she said, “I’m a Republican because of social issues.”

Behind this young couple, another row of benches had other people on them. The couple didn’t seem to notice they weren’t alone as they were focused on one another. The other benches were all filled with mostly middle aged men. They were scruffy and for certainly they weren’t scantily clad as the young lady. Each of these men was alone on his respective bench, each laying down trying to get some sleep. Some of them probably heard the young lady’s comment, but none replied.

Man vs Nature, Man vs Man (part 2)

This post is in response to comments that can be found at my last post.
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I don’t know your exact position on this issue, but let me clear about mine. It’s obvious that American society doesn’t offer an equality of opportunity, much less equality of results. Just look at the enduring systemic and institutionalized racism in all parts of our society.
The invocation of the ideology of equal opportunity is too often used as a magical incantation to dispel fear of a world with real equality. It’s not about perfect results, but it’s a sad state of affairs when abstract ideology is used to rationalize away real problems. I noticed this dichotomy within libertarianism. There are deontological libertarians who argue on moral grounds and there are consequentialist libertarians who supposedly argue based on results. The tricky part is that the results argued for are to varying degrees hypothetical since there has never been a libertarian country as far as I know, at least not in the modern era. So, in reality, the consequentialist libertarians are just deontological libertarians who defer into the future the obligation of moral justification. They get to argue for equality of opportunity without having to show any real world results that their ideology leads to even a semblance of equality for actual people living here and now.

You ask “Equality OF WHAT!!” I can respond with Equal Opportunity OF WHAT!! This is the difference. Equality of opportunity is too often an abstraction whereas equality of results can be concretely measured. Equality is something we aspire to even though it is never achieved absolutely. Also, to the extent that equal opportunity is more than mere abstract ideology, it can only be proven by its results. If an abstract ideology never leads to results, it is a less than worthless and possibly dangerous ideology. I think that it would be naive at best to think that most inequality we see today is ‘natural’ in any sense of that word.

Let me speak about Jefferson and Paine.

Jefferson may never have used the word democracy, but at least early in his life he definitely believed in a radical version of direct democracy in terms of direct civic participation and direct political action. As far as I understand it, his vision of democracy was one of an agrarian society which in today’s terms simply means a society of small business owners who simultaneously are producers. Yes, he believed in equality before the law, but his egalitarian vision went beyond that. He helped create a free public university which goes beyond mere opportunity because it is actively redistributing wealth to ensure public education. There is no way to have a govt without redistributing wealth. It’s just in authoritarian govts the wealth is distributed upwards to a minority elite and in democratic governments the wealth is distributed more evenly among the entire population.

However, Paine is more central to my argument, especially considering he was the first to refer to America as a united country and the first to formulate a version of Bill of Rights. Paine didn’t deny we are born with various inequalities, but he observed that most of the major inequalities in modern civilization are created by modern civilization. I’d suggest you read Paine in more detail to understand this position. He describes it in great detail in ‘Agrarian Justice’.

I’d go so far as to argue that the ideas and policies of the Populist and Progressive Eras were rooted in the thinking of the founding fathers.

For example, in ‘Agrarian Justice’, Paine formulated an early version of social security among other proposals of a what right-wingers would call a “welfare state”. Or take the Civil War as another example. Lincoln admired Paine and was inspired by Paine’s advocation of universal suffrage. Paine wanted literal freedom for all to be written into the constitution. Having failed that, it was left to Lincoln to finish the American Revolution that Paine originally inspired. In the terms of our disccusion, I think it’s hard to argue that the federal government enforcing equal rights (beginning with the Civil War and being furthered with the Civil Rights movement) is merely establishing equal opportunity. The government was, in fact, demanding basic results of equality in the real world. The government didn’t just offer slaves the opportunity to work themselves out of slavery.

I also mentioned earlier about some of the policies of the founding fathers. Besides creating public schools, I pointed out the issue of protectionism and subsidies.

The founding fathers weren’t worried about free market rhetoric because they understood on the global scale there was no free market. It wasn’t enough to say businesses had the opportunity to try to succeed. The founders protected American businesses against transnationals, enforcing an opposing unfair advantage to American businesses to counter the unfair advantage foreign businesses had from foreign governments.

Subsidies were another way they manipulated markets. In the case of subsidies for presses, they were manipulating markets for the public good. They didn’t merely offer the equal opportunity of a free press determined by a free market. They guaranteed (or at least strongly encouraged) equal results of having newspapers and other published works widely and cheaply available to average Americans.

You pointed out that the idea of an equal society has been portrayed as a dystopia in many movies. That isn’t much of an argument. Any idea can be portrayed dystopically when pushed to its most imbalanced extreme. I demonstrated this principle by dystopically portraying equal opportunity in terms of slavery. Imagine a society where some people are born free and some people are born into slavery. In this imagined society, some slaves do manage to work hard and buy their freedom. The fact that a few escape freedom doesn’t mean a whole lot for those who remain enslaved. Telling the slaves they have an equal opportunity wouldn’t comfort them.

Here is the crux of our discussion. I don’t know to what extent I do or do not understand your position, but your view as communicated here seems to be a fairly standard and mainstream understanding (actually, a bit right-leaning I must point out; conservatives tend to emphasize equal opportunity – or rather the rhetoric of equal opportunity – over equal results). As for my position, I don’t get the sense that you understand where I’m coming from (which is less standard and mainstream). We apparently have neither a shared based of knowledge nor a common understanding of terms. I realize I read widely at the fringes and so there is no reason I should assume most people would understand where I’m coming from. However, if you do want to understand where I’m coming from (specifically in terms of having a fruitful discussion about the above post), then I’d advise at least perusing some of the following (in particular, be sure to read ‘Agrarian Justice’). Otherwise, I doubt our discussion can go on much further.

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The following include two of my YouTube playlists, some of my previous blog posts, and various stuff found around the web:­ocracy/­beralism-liberal/­d-the-promise-of-america/­s-and-the-christian-nation/


Man vs Nature, Man vs Man: NPR, Parking Ramps, etc

This post is about some related thoughts: bias in media, the relationship of society and nature, and the issue of democracy in terms of our present capitalism.

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Based on my experience and research, I think it’s fair to state that NPR isn’t liberally biased… or, at least, not in any clear sense… but  such assessments, of course, depend on how one defines/perceives ‘liberalism’. I’d argue NPR is as mainstream as can be found in that they mostly present a status quo view of the world. I suspect if you were to ask most people seen in the mainstream media (reporters, pundits, politicians, talking heads, etc) and they gave you an honest answer, most of them probably would agree with the types of views that are regularly presented on NPR.

(This ‘mainstream’, however, isn’t the same as the everyday experience and values of the average person. If you want to find something closer to a liberal bias, look at the stated opinions of the majority of Americans.)

Here is an example from NPR. The other day, there was a panel discussion. It was about business use of and government management of public land. As I recall, there were three guests, all mainstream types including someone defending the interests of big business and criticizing too much regulation. They had the typical disagreements one often hears in the mainstream, but they were all basically on the same page about the terms and focus of discussion. For certain, it wasn’t a liberal panel. It was just the old school journalism where two sides of an issue are ‘neutrally’ presented by the host, although done in the non-antagonistic ‘let’s all get along’ style typical of NPR.

Most interesting is what was lacking, specifically in terms of those who claim a liberal bias. Among the guests, there was no left-winger of any variety nor anyone who might agree with left-wing positions; no communists, socialists, Marxists, anarcho-syndicalists, anarcho-primitivists, left-libertarians, hippy environmentalists, deep ecologists, Goddess-loving pagans, social justice Christians, indigenous people, community activists, etc. Among the guests invited, there was no discussion of the poor and minorities most impacted by pollution and environmental destruction, no discussion about the alternatives to our present capitalist system, no discussion about how our society is turning into inverted totalitarianism. The officials/experts who were invited as guests framed the discussion narrowly. It was mostly framed as government regulation vs private profit. there was also some slight secondary framing of local people vs non-local corporations. Framings that were mostly or entirely ignored included: communities vs globalism, public good vs individual good, living ecosystems vs natural resources, humans as part of nature vs humans as separate from nature, etc.

The basic discussion was about how to maximize resource procurement while minimizing environmental destruction. And the basic assumption was of opposition and conflict, of win/lose scenarios where those who lose the most are ignored or rationalized away. There was neither an environmentalist conception of the human species living sustainably balanced within the earth’s biosphere nor a religious belief of humanty as caretaker of God’s Creation. The focus of the discussion was ‘management’ and so the implication was how do we best control and manipulate nature toward our desired ends. What was missing was the possibility of humans not creating problems in the first place that need to be managed.

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I was thinking about how this opposition attitude is common in American society right now. There is the idea that for one person or group to win that others must lose. And there is is the idea that society can only be run well through hierarchies with the only disagreement being which system the hierarchy is organized according to. All of this depresses me.

My friend and I went to see the new X-Men: First Class movie. We were discussing the view portrayed of human evolution and change. It was mostly a view of Social Darwinism (by the way, I’ve always thought it odd how many right-wingers will dismiss Darwinian evolution while promoting Social Darwinism). I mentioned to my friend the thoughts I wrote about above. As a liberal, he of course agreed with me about NPR being a mainstream establishment voice. And we had a discussion on our walk home about the relationship of society and nature.

I told him about some thoughts I’ve had while working at the city parking ramp. In particular, I brought up my wonderings about what kind of vision of the world is implied by the building of large concrete structures in which to store large hunks of mobile metal.

I noticed a pigeon nesting in the ramp and I knew its days were numbered. Management seeks to block all possible nesting sites within the ramp and some of the maintenance workers find great pleasure in ‘hunting’ the pigeons who do manage to find a roost. This mentality is repugnant to me. I understand that animals and humans don’t always cohabitate well, but this situation isn’t ‘natural’ or inevitable. Parking ramps are designed to be ecosystem deserts, to be utterly opposed to all that is natural. But there is no reason to do this other than an ideological paradigm, a worldview that disallows people to envision any other possibility.

A parking ramp could be designed that gave pigeons nesting areas that would keep their poop away from cars and walkways. It could even be designed so that the pigeon poop could be collected and used as it traditionally was used (and still is used in many places) as fertilizer. This pigeon fertilizer could be used as free fertilizer for city gardens or it could be sold in order to make additional profit. That would be a win-win solution. To take this a step further, ramps (or any other structures for that matter) could be designed with habitation for all kinds of animals. Downtowns could be as beautiful to look at as parks filled with trees. And the habitat could help ease some of the environmental destruction that are causing many species to become endangered and go extinct.

What is the advantage of seeing nature as the enemy? There is no practical advantage. It actually goes against the practical benefit of the continued survival of the human species. Yes, we’re talented at ‘managing’ nature, but too often this just means destroying nature. My friend pointed out the conservative position that it shouldn’t be the role of government to spend taxpayers’ money on the liberal agenda of saving nature. My response was that neither should it be the role of government to ensure the private profit agenda of destroying of nature.

– – –

This problem extends beyond just nature. If we perceive nature as lesser than us, then our treatment of nature demonstrates how we wish to treat humans that are considered as lesser than other humans (poor, minorities, indigenous, etc) and how we wish to treat communities that are considered lesser (in terms of legal rights and political influence) than big business. To treat nature fairly is akin to the democratic ideal of treating all people fairly.

The reason I was thinking about democracy was because of an article on The Nation. Here is the article:

Reimagining Capitalism: Bold Ideas for a New Economy
William Greider

And following it is my response:

Our societal problems are caused and contributed to by a lack of democracy. A functioning democracy isn’t just about votes but about participation. In all aspects of society (politics, media, business, etc), power and wealth have become concentrated while wealth disparity and political disenfranchisement grows. Early great thinkers warned against such concentration, but in recent history many wrongly thought such warnings no longer mattered.

A political democracy is meaningless without social democracy (i.e., democratic values such as in the constitution). I don’t know if capitalism’s problems can be solved or if capitalism must be replaced. If there is any hope for capitalism in a democratic society, it will be by capitalism becoming a part of democracy rather than in opposition.

The founders and other early Americans were careful about regulating capitalism. They created protectionism to defend the local economy against transnationals, subsidized presses ensuring a functioning free press available to all citizens, and defined corporations narrowly. The last may be most important. Corporations:

– were only allowed to serve a single project or product, large conglomerate corporations having been illegal.

– could only exist as temporary entities so as to not outlive the people who are responsible for creating them.

– weren’t allowed to participate in politics.

Free market is just another way of saying democratic market. A system, political or economic, can only be free to the extent people involved in the system are free. As some early Americans (Paine, Jefferson, Thoreau, etc) realized, freedom can’t exist without equality (of power and wealth, and of opportunities to fairly earn power and wealth).

Democracy only functions well on the local level where people know the people they are impacting by their decisions and actions. A market can’t be considered free when it impacts people who can’t influence or protect themselves against those (e.g., transnationals) who seek to profit at their expense (including local communities and environments). The more localized democracy becomes the more it becomes direct democracy. Elites mistrust the people, but we the majority need to stop being subservient to the elites in politics and business. The problem is that the system we have now is designed by and for the upper class.

We need a government and an economy that is literally by and for the people:

1) a modernized version of Jefferson’s agrarian democracy (meaning an economy run mostly by small businesses and a society where most people are small business owners);

2) something like what Chomsky describes with anarcho-syndicalism (where businesses are owned, controlled and/or otherwise greatly influenced by the workers and by the members of the community in which the business is located); or

3) a system closer to Germany’s model with strong unions, a publicly trained workforce, high levels of civic participation, well-funded social safety net, community banks, and protected manufacturing.

– – –

Obviously, we live in a messed up society with messed up priorities. We are still operating society according to some very old ideas about human nature, but we are facing very new problems.

NPR: Liberal Bias?

Let me state upfront my own bias. 

Some might perceive me as a progressive liberal far to the left of what is called ‘liberal’ in mainstream media and politics. Right-wingers likely would call me a ‘socialist’. But going by polls most of my positions seem to be more or less in line with the ‘mass opinion’ of the general public (US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism).

I’m not a partisan or an ideological purist. I’m an Independent who doesn’t give allegiance to any specific party, especially not the Democratic Party. In fact, I don’t like party politics in general and I utterly despise the two-party stanglehold. On principle, I refuse to vote for the lesser of two evils because that would still mean voting for evil. I’m more likely to vote Libertarian or Green. I would consider myself a liberal-minded small ‘d’ democrat. I put my value of democracy before all else. I’ve increasingly come to doubt all things ‘big’: big government, big business, big media, big think tanks, big special interests, big unions, big money campaign funding, etc. Grassroots democracy is always the safest bet.

I often listen to NPR while at work, but not because they represent my views. I just find them the least obnoxious of the choices available on talk radio. NPR makes good background noise. Public radio in general (NPR, IPR, BBC, and CBC) keeps me basically informed about the major events going on in the world and occasionally I hear an interesting interview. Unlike most talk radio, the annoying opinionated punditry (especially of the angry ranting variety) is non-existent on NPR. Even at it’s worse, NPR is just boringly bland in sticking so close to conventional wisdom and noncontroversial issues. However, I listen to NPR less and less as the years go by.

So, I’m biased against mainstream media in general. In this way, I’m biased against NPR for the same basic reason I’m biased against Fox News. I’m biased against the mainstream bias that excludes, dismisses, or criticizes alternative viewpoints and sources.

– – –

In this post, I’m responding to the allegation that NPR has a liberal or even a left-wing bias.

I’ve previously touched upon this in a previous post about media in general: Black and White and Re(a)d All Over. I’m not defending NPR. In fact, I’m critical of all mainstream media (i.e., big media owned and operated by big business or, in the case of NPR, funded by big business). It’s true that NPR doesn’t play the partisan punditry game such as Fox News or MSNBC. Instead, they are more in league with CNN. The game they play is defender of the political status quo and mouthpiece of Washington politics. The only bias NPR has is that of Establishment centrism and corporatism.

Some claim NPR is left-leaning. Others claim it’s right-leaning. It all depends on your comparison. It’s to the left of Fox News and to the right of MSNBC. More importantly, I’d point out how it compares to society as a whole. I don’t know if it is to the right or left of center in Washington politics, but admittedly it’s difficult for any news outlet to be much further right than what goes for centrism in Washington. Like most of the MSM, NPR is to the right of the average American, at least in terms of major issues such as health care reform and drug legalization/decreminalization.

This is significant considering that ‘Public’ is literally NPR’s middle name. If NPR doesn’t represent and fairly report public opinion, then whose opinion are they voicing?

NPR rarely has alternative voices, including internationally renown thinkers such as Noam Chomsky. As a liberal, the type of liberal media personalities I enjoy listening to (along with Chomsky: Thom Hartmann, Sam Seder, etc) tend to not be heard on NPR or in the rest of the mainstream media. This is interesting as these people aren’t necessarily radicals. Hartmann, for example, seems similar to me in being in agreement with the American silent majority. These people who are considered ‘far left’ aren’t radical in the way that Glenn Beck or Alex Jones is radical… and yet this supposed ‘far left’ gets equated to the far right.

NPR gives a platform for views that are considered mainstream (meaning the political center of the ruling elite: political elite, business elite, intellectual elite, think tank elite, etc). What NPR typically doesn’t do is challenge this mainstream status quo or invite guests on who will challenge this mainstream status quo.

In fear of being called ‘liberal’, some have argued that NPR bends over backwards in the opposite direction:

In its obituary marking the death of iconic liberal activist and historian Howard Zinn, NPR allowed right-wing hater David Horowitz go off on the recently deceased: 

“There is absolutely nothing in Howard Zinn’s intellectual output that is worthy of any kind of respect,” Horowitz declared in the NPR story. “Zinn represents a fringe mentality which has unfortunately seduced millions of people at this point in time. So he did certainly alter the consciousness of millions of younger people for the worse.”

That brought a deserved rebuke from listeners, who were encouraged by FAIR. NPR’s ombudsman thenlooked back at how the radio network handled recent obits of other political players, who were all conservatives [emphasis added]: 

NPR was complimentary and respectful in memorializing [Bill] Buckley, who died in 2008. The network was equally nuanced in remembering pioneering televangelist Oral Roberts(who died in December) and Robert Novaka conservative columnist who played a key role in the Valerie Plame debacle and who died last August. NPR’s obituaries of these men did not contain mean-spirited, Horowitz-like comments.

There is one particular study I found interesting which claims to have measured a very slight liberal bias to NPR. What was interesting was what was being measured:

A caveat: The Duke team’s results don’t directly get at the ideologies of the entities themselves, only at the makeup of the networks that surround them. “We would say that our estimates relate to the perception of a given entity,” Sparks says. “However, for the purposes of our paper and possibly for thinking about the media, perceptions may be what is actually important.”

It’s an odd thing to measure perception. Whose perception is being measured?

I noticed the article gave a clear description of its bias: “The only surprises were how far to the left some mainstream entities, such as Katie Couric and the Washington Post, fell (although that would be no surprise at all to those who think the entire mainstream media is shot through with liberal bias).” This must be understood in context. One could equally say: The only surprises were how far to the right the entire mainstream media, such as NPR and Fox News, fell (although that would be no surprise at all to those who think the entire mainstream media is shot through with conservative bias).

Think about it for a moment. Where do you always here that the mainstream media is liberal? You hear it in the mainstream media. If the mainstream media were actually liberal, they wouldn’t constantly attack each other as being liberal and constantly deny their liberal bias when attacked.

So, in the context of mainstream media, NPR is perceived as ‘liberal’. That isn’t surprising. In the context of mainstream media, the stated public opinion of the American majority would be perceived as ‘liberal’. However, since the mainstream media controls the narrative of public debate, those who control the media (i.e., big business) controls the public perception. The real liberal bias is to be found among average Americans who are the silent majority. The more the media has become concentrated the further it has become distanced from average Americans. Most Americans get their news from the mainstream media and, as one would suspect, most Americans perceive themselves as ‘conservative’ despite their tending toward liberal and progressive views on key issues.

Perception, when controlled and manipulated, isn’t an accurate and fair measure of reality. Yes, as people like Chomsky understand, the propaganda model does work.

In this particular case, one must ask: Who is trying to control/manipulate the perception of NPR being liberally biased? It’s the conservative mainstream media.

There are a couple of relevant points.

First, since the entire mainstream media is far to the right of the majority of Americans and since the conservative mainstream media is far to the right of the center of mainstream media, then this accusation of liberal bias is originating from sources that are radically far right. So, it’s an issue of who is categorizing according to which labels and what is motivating their choices.

There have been notable recent attempts to study think tank coverage, including a problematic study by academics Tim Groseclose and Jeff Milyo (see Extra!, 5–6/05) and NPR’s analysis of its own use of think tanks (, 12/14/05). NPR ombud Jeffrey A. Dvorkin only listed eight think tanks, and counted Brookings and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (which has Henry Kissinger on its board) as “left” think tanks. (There are no centrist think tanks in Dvorkin’s universe.) Even thus stacking the deck, Dvorkin still found a 239–141 advantage in citations for the right—a result that he said, puzzlingly enough, shows that “NPR does not lean on the so-called conservative think tanks as many in the audience seem to think.

Second, the sources (such as Fox News) making this accusation of liberal bias against NPR are measured as being less reliable sources of info than those they are making accusations against:

The extent of Americans’ misperceptions vary significantly depending on their source of news. Those who receive most of their news from Fox News are more likely than average to have misperceptions. Those who receive most of their news from NPR or PBS are less likely to have misperceptions. These variations cannot simply be explained as a result of differences in the demographic characteristics of each audience, because these variations can also be found when comparing the demographic subgroups of each audience.

It isn’t necessarily helpful to think of media in terms of right vs left. The news, for the most part, is about profits.

Even NPR has increasingly become funded by corporate money (far more than any government funding). Profit or not, it’s a fact that the media has become increasingly concentrated. A few corporations have been buying up the media for decades. NPR, and other public radio, also has been growing in a similar fashion taking up the place that used to be filled with locally owned and operated radio stations. To the degree there has been a bias, it’s the bias of big business (which tends to be the same bias as that of conservatives or at least right-wing conservatives; and it should be noted that many right-wing conservatives incorrectly believe they represent both the average conservative and the average American).

Furthermore, the data shows that politicians and political activists are more polarized in their rhetoric than are most Americans. There is a minority of partisan true believers and these people will always see the media biased against them.

The hostile media effect, sometimes called the hostile media phenomenon, refers to the finding that people with strong biases toward an issue (partisans) perceive media coverage as biased against their opinions, regardless of the reality. Proponents of the hostile media effect argue that this finding cannot be attributed to the presence of bias in the news reports, since partisans from opposing sides of an issue rate the same coverage as biased against their side and biased in favor of the opposing side.

Presently in the US, the right is more radicalized than the left. It’s for this reason that we most often hear the allegation of a liberal media bias rather than the opposite.

Most Americans, on the other hand, aren’t radicalized. The average American, like the average NPR listener, is moderate. However, the issue is made complex for the reason that present-day American liberals are more moderate than present-day American conservatives (more moderate, for example, in being the demographic most supportive of compromise and the demographic most supportive of government no matter which party is in power). This means there is much more crossover between liberals and moderates (in recent history, liberals have tended to disavow the radical far left).

For one, when we described the right-wing media machine as NPR’s “long-time nemesis,” it was not to suggest that somehow public radio is its left-wing opposite. When it comes to covering and analyzing the news, the reverse of right isn’t left; it’s independent reporting that toes neither party nor ideological line. We’ve heard no NPR reporter — not a one — advocating on the air for more government spending (or less), for the right of abortion (or against it), for or against gay marriage, or for or against either political party, especially compared to what we hear from Fox News and talk radio on all of these issues and more. [ . . . ]

So what do conservatives really mean when they accuse NPR of being “liberal”? They mean it’s not accountable to their worldview as conservatives and partisans. They mean it reflects too great a regard for evidence and is too open to reporting different points of views of the same event or idea or issue. Reporting that by its very fact-driven nature often fails to confirm their ideological underpinnings, their way of seeing things (which is why some liberals and Democrats also become irate with NPR).

The most interesting part to me is how many of NPR listeners aren’t liberal and especially aren’t far left-wing:

The facts show that NPR attracts a politically diverse audience of 33.7 million weekly listeners to its member stations on-air. In surveys by GfK MRI, most listeners consistently identify themselves as “middle of the road” or “conservative.” Millions of conservatives choose NPR, even with powerful conservative alternatives on the radio.

The right-wing media may attack NPR, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that the average conservative has any complaint:

Media critics and conservative commentators are responding to the recent controversy over NPR by praising the network’s reporting. In addition, some Tea Party activists say that NPR’s coverage of their group has been “fair.”

Even so, those who run NPR often seem clueless in thinking that appeasing the right-wing media will end the attacks:

In the When Will They Learn? department, incoming National Public Radio president Gary Knell seems to suffer from the same misunderstanding that has plagued public broadcasting executives for years.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik reports that Knell says he hopes to “calm the waters a bit” at NPR after recent political controversies, and to “depoliticize” debate over the future of public radio. Knell is quoted saying, “It’s not about liberal or conservative; it’s about fairness…. We’ve got to make the case we’re delivering a fair service.”

Sigh. It’s as if he doesn’t see the road behind him strewn with efforts to “depoliticize” the public broadcasting debate, which is code for appeasing public broadcasting’s conservative enemies by adding more right-wing content and censoring things they might not like.

But the thing is, politicians are political, and some of them want there to be no more publicly funded…anything, but certainly not broadcasting, which they demonstrate by voting to zero out its resources every chance they get. No matter how calm the waters are.

For the rest of the post, I’ll offer from various sources more evidence against and discussion about the allegation of a liberally biased NPR.

– – –

Debates over whether NPR has a vendetta against conservatives, though, miss the larger issue of the network’s financial strength. NPR says its finances have rebounded. NPR makes most of its revenue from program fees and dues that stations pay to broadcast its programs. Its second-largest source of revenue — and one of the reasons for its financial success — is that it allows corporations the chance to reach the its well-heeled audience through sponsorships, which it says has enjoyed “strong growth” over the past decade.

As journalism it is worthless: nothing more than an echo chamber for the views of the powerful interests and forces that control this country – large US and multinational corporations, departments and agencies of US military and foreign policy, and the national Republican and Democratic parties, etc.  As an organization, NPR never challenges or confronts the myth of US goodness in foreign policy, the belief in US exceptionalism, the supposed benefits of capitalism and market ideologies.

While the political right has been beating the drum for years that NPR is too liberal, Nader says that is not the true picture at all. He says that it is progressives on the political left, like him, who are being excluded from NPR’s airwaves.

“Progressive voices are not heard on NPR with the frequency of voices representing more corporatist and conservative opinion,” Nader said. “And progressive voices should not be confused with liberal voices and lumped into the same category for any frequency analysis.”

According to Nader, what NPR considers a liberal perspective is really middle-of-the-road. Among his examples are well-known Democrats like President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Progressives, he said, exist farther to the left on the political spectrum. They support things like a Medicare-type single-payer system for all Americans, and not the health care compromise passed by Congress.

Nader does make at least one good point. Academic studies in recent decades have repeatedly shown that the country’s political right, more than the left, is so peopled by true believers driven by principle that they reject political compromise and stay on message with such a strong voice that it attracts great media attention and exaggerates their real weight in the populace.

So who are some of these progressives on the left that Nader says are being ignored? Some are old war horses such as Jim Hightower, Gloria Steinem, Frances Fox Piven and Cornel West. But others are younger political players. They include Kevin Zeese and Robert Weissman. Nader gave a list, quickly scribbled; it is not exhaustive.

“Most of the Liberals in Congress voted for the Patriot Act and its renewal,” Nader said, citing another policy differentiator. He said progressives more than liberals also want to dramatically increase minimum wage and decrease the country’s military involvement abroad.

On story selection, NPR is more international in its focus, clearly. You are gonna hear somewhat more about policy. You are gonna hear somewhat less about political argument. Does that represent bias? Ultimately, I think these questions of bias may be in the eye of the beholder.

[ . . . ] Well, do I see proof of bias in the story selection? No. Do I see evidence in our tone studies that prove a liberal bias? No. Does this prove that NPR is not biased? I can’t say that. We don’t have tone for every topic. In the end, it’s very hard to establish, even if someone were to identify who’s on the air and what their political affiliations are. If you have a lot of people from one party on and the questioning is very tough, that goes one way. And if you have a lot of people on and the coverage are a bunch of softball questions, that goes another way. Bias, in the end, is often a matter of whether things are phrased in ways that I agree with or disagree with. In the end, you’re not gonna persuade anyone with data.

Allegations of ideological bias

Allegations of liberal bias

A 2005 study conducted by researchers at UCLA and the University of Missouri found Morning Edition to be more liberal than the average U.S. Republican and more conservative than the average U.S. Democrat. At the time Morning Edition was comparable to the The Washington Post, the CBS Morning ShowTimeNewsweek and U.S. News & World Report.[4] Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a progressive media watchdog group,[5] disputes the claim of a liberal bias.[6] 

Allegations of conservative bias 

A December 2005 column run by NPR ombudsman and former Vice President Jeffrey Dvorkin denied allegations by some listeners that NPR relies heavily on conservative think-tanks.[7] In his column, Dvorkin listed the number of times NPR had cited experts from conservative and liberal think tanks in the previous year as evidence. The totals were 239 for conservative think tanks, and 141 for liberal ones. He noted that while the number of times liberal think tanks were cited was less, in addition to think tanks the liberal point of view is commonly provided by academics.

In 2003, some critics accused NPR of being supportive of the invasion of Iraq.[8][9]

Allegations of bias against Israel

NPR has been criticised for perceived bias in its coverage of Israel.[10][11][12][13] The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), a pro-Israel American media monitoring organization based in Boston, has been particularly critical of NPR. CAMERA director Andrea Levin has stated, “We consider NPR to be the most seriously biased mainstream media outlet,” a statement that The Boston Globe describes as having “clearly gotten under her target’s skin.”[13] NPR’s then-Ombudsman, Jeffrey A. Dvorkin, said in a 2002 interview that CAMERA used selective citations and subjective definitions of what it considers pro-Palestinian bias in formulating its findings, and that he felt CAMERA’s campaign was “a kind of McCarthyism, frankly, that bashes us and causes people to question our commitment to doing this story fairly. And it exacerbates the legitimate anxieties of many in the Jewish community about the survival of Israel.”[14]

Allegations of elitism and the status quo

A 2004 FAIR study concluded that “NPR’s guestlist shows the radio service relies on the same elite and influential sources that dominate mainstream commercial news, and falls short of reflecting the diversity of the American public.”[15]

Noam Chomsky has criticized NPR as being biased toward ideological power and the status quo. He alleges that the parameters of debate on a given topic are very consciously curtailed. He says that since the network maintains studios in ideological centers of opinion such as Washington, the network feels the necessity to carefully consider what kinds of dissenting opinion are acceptable. Thus, political pragmatism, perhaps induced by fear of offending public officials who control some of the NPR’s funding (via CPB), often determines what views are suitable for broadcast, meaning that opinions critical of the structures of national-interest-based foreign policy, capitalism, and government bureaucracies (entailed by so-called “radical” or “activist” politics) usually do not make it to air.[16]

Defenders’ rebuttals

Supporters contend that NPR does its job well. A study conducted in 2003 by the polling firm Knowledge Networks and the University of Maryland‘s Program on International Policy Attitudes showed that those who get their news and information from public broadcasting (NPR and PBS) are better informed than those whose information comes from other media outlets. In one study, NPR and PBS audiences had a more accurate understanding of the events in Iraq versus all audiences for cable and broadcast TV networks and the print media.[17][18]

With those values in mind, let’s consider the fundamental question: the accusation of “liberal bias” at NPR, which drives many critics calling to eliminate its federal funding. It’s not my job as a reporter to address the funding question. But I can point out that the recent tempests over “perceived bias” have nothing to do with what NPR puts on the air. The facts show that NPR attracts a politically diverse audience of 33.7 million weekly listeners to its member stations on-air. In surveys by GfK MRI, most listeners consistently identify themselves as “middle of the road” or “conservative.” Millions of conservatives choose NPR, even with powerful conservative alternatives on the radio.

Another somewhat surprising result is our estimate of NPR’s Morning Edition.  Conservatives frequently list NPR as an egregious example of a liberal news outlet.[27]  However, by our estimate the outlet hardly differs from the average mainstream news outlet.  For instance, its score is approximately equal to those of Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report, and its score is slightly less than the Washington Post’s.  Further, our estimate places it well to the right of the New York Times, and also to the right of the average speech by Joe Lieberman.  These differences are statistically significant.[28]  We mentioned this finding to Terry Anderson, an academic economist and Executive Director of the Political Economy Research Center, which is among the list of think tanks in our sample.  (The average score of legislators citing PERC was 39.9, which places it as a moderate-right think tank, approximately as conservative as RAND is liberal.)  Anderson told us, “When NPR interviewed us, they were nothing but fair.  I think the conventional wisdom has overstated any liberal bias at NPR.”  Our NPR estimate is also consistent with James Hamilton’s (2004, 108) research on audience ideology of news outlets.  Hamiltonfinds that the average NPR listener holds approximately the same ideology as the average network news viewer or the average viewer of morning news shows, such as Today or Good Morning America.   Indeed, of the outlets that he examines in this section of his book, by this measure NPR is the ninth most liberal out of eighteen.

Tallying the Think Tanks

NPR often calls on think tanks for comments. But NPR does not lean on the so-called conservative think tanks as many in the audience seem to think.

Here’s the tally sheet for the number of times think tank experts were interviewed to date on NPR in 2005:

American Enterprise – 59

Brookings Institute – 102

Cato Institute – 29

Center for Strategic and Intl. Studies – 39

Heritage Foundation – 20

Hoover Institute – 69

Lexington Institute – 9

Manhattan Institute – 53

There are of course, other think tanks, but these seem to be the ones whose experts are heard most often on NPR. Brookings and CSIS are seen by many in Washington, D.C., as being center to center-left. The others in the above list tend to lean to the right. So NPR has interviewed more think tankers on the right than on the left.

The score to date: Right 239, Left 141.

There may be other experts who are interviewed on NPR who present a liberal perspective. But they tend to be based in universities and colleges and are not part of the think tank culture. That seems to be where most conservative thinking on the issues of the day can be most easily found. Journalism in general — including NPR — has become overly reliant on the easily obtained offerings of the think tanks.

Liberal bias?

That NPR harbors a liberal bias is an article of faith among many conservatives. Spanning from the early ’70s, when President Richard Nixon demanded that “all funds for public broadcasting be cut” (9/23/71), through House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s similar threats in the mid-’90s, the notion that NPR leans left still endures. 

News of the April launch of Air America, a new liberal talk radio network, revived the old complaint, with several conservative pundits declaring that such a thing already existed. “I have three letters for you, NPR . . . . I mean, there is liberal radio,” remarked conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan on NBC’s Chris Matthews Show(4/4/04). A few days earlier (4/1/04), conservative columnist Cal Thomas told Nightline, “The liberals have many outlets,” naming NPR prominently among them. 

Nor is this belief confined to the right: CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer (3/31/04) seemed to repeat it as a given while questioning a liberal guest: “What about this notion that the conservatives make a fair point that there already is a liberal radio network out there, namely National Public Radio?”

Despite the commonness of such claims, little evidence has ever been presented for a left bias at NPR, and FAIR’s latest study gives it no support. Looking at partisan sources—including government officials, party officials, campaign workers and consultants—Republicans outnumbered Democrats by more than 3 to 2 (61 percent to 38 percent). A majority of Republican sources when the GOP controls the White House and Congress may not be surprising, but Republicans held a similar though slightly smaller edge (57 percent to 42 percent) in 1993, when Clinton was president and Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. And a lively race for the Democratic presidential nomination was beginning to heat up at the time of the 2003 study.

Partisans from outside the two major parties were almost nowhere to be seen, with the exception of four Libertarian Party representatives who appeared in a single story (Morning Edition, 6/26/03). 

Republicans not only had a substantial partisan edge, individual Republicans were NPR’s most popular sources overall, taking the top seven spots in frequency of appearance. George Bush led all sources for the month with 36 appearances, followed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (8) and Sen. Pat Roberts (6). Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Secretary of State Colin Powell, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer and Iraq proconsul Paul Bremer all tied with five appearances each. 

Senators Edward Kennedy, Jay Rockefeller and Max Baucus were the most frequently heard Democrats, each appearing four times. No nongovernmental source appeared more than three times. With the exception of Secretary of State Powell, all of the top 10 most frequently appearing sources were white male government officials.

The Right Stuff: NPR’s think tank sources

FAIR’s four-month study of NPR in 1993 found 10 think tanks that were cited twice or more. In a new four-month study (5/03–8/03), the list of think tanks cited two or more times has grown to 17, accounting for 133 appearances.

FAIR classified each think tank by ideological orientation as either centrist, right of center or left of center. Representatives of think tanks to the right of center outnumbered those to the left of center by more than four to one: 62 appearances to 15. Centrist think tanks provided sources for 56 appearances.

The most often quoted think tank was the centrist Brookings Institution, quoted 31 times; it was also the most quoted think tank in 1993. It was followed by 19 appearances by the conservative Center for Strategic and International Studies and 17 by the centrist Council on Foreign Relations. The most frequently cited left-of-center organization was the Urban Institute, with eight appearances.

Diversity among think tank representatives was even more lopsided than the ideological spread, with women cited only 10 percent of the time, and people of color only 3 percent. Only white men were quoted more than twice, the most frequent being Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (8 appearances), Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings (7) and E.J. Dionne, also of Brookings (6).

So would Republican presidential hopefuls agree with him, that a more diverse NPR would be a better use of public funds? Do the elephants care about the quality of news that’s accessible in the peanut gallery?

Or are they grandstanding and whipping up ill-informed Americans into a frenzy in the name of Muslim-bashing? Despite a desperate need to change course in the Middle East,  this fall the GOP laughed all the way into office as NPR war reporters joined up with the rest of the subservient national press to please the Pentagon with their favorable coverage.

Listen critically to NPR’s reporting of US foreign policy and you will hear selective storytelling shining favorable light on CIA activities, and so-called experts providing dodgy history lessons on Afghanistan. While popular anchors parrot unsubstantiated claims about Iraq, and others kiss up to conservative politicians, commentators smirk their way through reactionary antagonism of whistle-blowers.

To me, it is no wonder that the anti-Iraq War invasion contingent of NPR’s audience seems so totally placated, four elections later.

It’s debatable whether those at the top of the right-wing echo chamber are in fact willfully misleading their audiences when it comes to funding radio with tax dollars. Either that or they’re afraid of what they don’t understand as usual.

Public radio station revenue is mostly made up of individual and business contributors, with less than 6% coming from direct federal, state and local government funding combined.

funding combined. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) funds barely 10% of all public radio budgets. NPR itself is funded mostly by member station programming fees and corporate sponsorships, and receives no government funding for operation costs.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [ . . . ] As we waded in, we realized it’s incredibly complicated. Look no further than the terms themselves. What is bias? What do we mean when we invoke the word “liberal?” And even defining “NPR” is fraught.

First up, bias. It’s a moving target. In his 1986 book The Uncensored War, communications professor Daniel Hallin drew a simple diagram depicting three spheres in journalism. They’re called Hallin’s Spheres. Picture a doughnut. The hole in the doughnut is the sphere of consensus, and here are issues and views we can all agree on – democracy is good, slavery is bad, all men are created equal. Here truths are self-evident and journalists don’t feel the need to be objective.

No, that’s reserved for the doughnut itself, the sphere of legitimate controversy. Here’s where the bulk of journalism takes place – gun control, interest rates, budget matters and abortion, issues on which reasonable people can disagree and where journalists are obliged to present both sides.

Outside the doughnut lies the sphere of deviance, limbo, where viewpoints are deemed unworthy of debate. The pro-pedophilia position, for example, does not get a hearing in mainstream media.

But Hallin created his spheres in the 1980s, before FOX News and MSNBC, the rise of talk radio and the blogosphere. Certain views that a generation ago would have been relegated to the sphere of deviance – for example, questioning the birth certificate of the President of the United States – Hallin says have now forced their way onto the doughnut.

DANIEL HALLIN: When I made my diagram there was only one set of spheres, let’s say, and everybody kind of agreed on what they were. The boundaries might get fuzzy. But now I think our media have become fragmented and pluralized so that you have different sub-communities that have different ideas of where the boundaries lie, right?

So a generation ago, the questions whether Obama can legitimately be president, this would have been rejected both by elites in Washington of both parties and by the media as just absolutely outside the proper bounds of political debate, and it would have been excluded. Today there’s just a lot less consensus.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Hallin’s doughnut has been blasted into crumbs by a confluence of voices. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but where does that leave NPR?

DANIEL HALLIN: NPR, like, actually, quite a few of the mainstream news organizations in the U.S., I would say still adheres to the old-style journalism that tries to stick to the center and tell both sides. But I think that this is a period in which it’s harder to do. I think it’s much more difficult to legitimize.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you mean it’s more difficult to legitimize?

DANIEL HALLIN: Well, you could convince people that you were in fact being neutral by sticking to a point in the center between Republicans and Democrats and giving them both a hearing in an earlier period. Nowadays that just doesn’t work as well because different segments of the population have different ideas of where the center really is, of what’s a legitimate political point of view. So I think that all of the news organizations that try and stick to the old-fashioned patterns of journalistic professionalism, they’re all a little bit on the defensive.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you think mainstream journalists should respond to the fuzziness of the sphere of consensus, the sphere of legitimate debate and the sphere of deviance, that which should not be discussed?

DANIEL HALLIN: At what point would we decide that global warming is not really a legitimate subject of controversy anymore? Because the truth is within scientific communities it’s not. Within the political public sphere there’s still a big controversy about it. And that is somewhat troubling, that gap.

You know, in many cases I think it’s going to be the right decision for a journalist to say, we’re aware that the science says that there’s not a controversy here and we are going to refuse to treat this part of it as though it were controversial. I think that that’s a responsible decision. I think it’s politically risky as well.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Daniel Hallin teaches at the University of California San Diego. Based on the remark we just heard, he’ll be labeled by some as a liberal. The word is applied broadly now to big-L Liberal politics and small-l liberal values, even liberal science, to the point where the word “liberal” itself means almost nothing.

And what does NPR mean? For most people, NPR is whatever they hear when they tune into public radio. But NPR itself produces or editorially oversees very little of that content. It’s directly responsible for Morning Edition, All Things Considered, the weekend equivalent of those shows, and Talk of the Nation. It also distributes shows produced elsewhere – On the Media, Diane Rehm, Fresh Air and so on.

And then there are the shows that NPR neither produces nor distributes that are among public radio’s most popular – This American Life, Marketplace, A Prairie Home Companion. And finally there are the local shows produced by public radio stations everywhere. But does it even matter when most of the bias debate coalesces around federal support, the bulk of which goes to stations?



Federal Reserve: Constitutional? Democratic?

I was talking to someone about the John Birch Society. I was mentioning how, having come of age in the 1990s when the right-wing was on the rise, I inherited some of the Bircher paranoia toward power. Besides fear of flouride in the water, the other notion that was implanted in my young mind was the criticisms of the privately owned Federal Reserve banks.
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Despite my liberalism, in some ways I might make a better paranoid right-winger than some conservatives (although ultimately my liberal faith in humanity and reason usually wins out). I dismiss the craziest paranoid conspiracy theories proposed by right-wingers, but some of the right-wingers’ concerns are worthy of consideration. I (and many other liberals) consider the Federal Reserve to be one of these worthy concerns.
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There are issues about the constitutional and democratic validity of the Federal Reserve. Furthermore, more central to the Bircher’s fears, there is plenty of evidence that the Federal Reserve member banks are privately owned:
1. United States
There are no sharp criteria for determining whether an entity is a federal agency within meaning of the Federal Tort Claims Act, but critical factor is existence of federal government control over “detailed physical performance” and “day to day operation” of an entity. . .
2. United States
Federal reserve banks are not federal instrumentalities for purposes of a Federal Tort Claims Act, but are independent, privately owned and locally controlled corporations in light of fact that direct supervision and control of each bank is exercised by board of directors, federal reserve banks, though heavily regulated, are locally controlled by their member banks, banks are listed neither as “wholly owned” government corporations nor as “mixed ownership” corporations; federal reserve banks receive no appropriated funds from Congress and the banks are empowered to sue and be sued in their own names. . .
3. United States
Under the Federal Tort Claims Act, federal liability is narrowly based on traditional agency principles and does not necessarily lie when a tortfeasor simply works for an entity, like the Reserve Bank, which performs important activities for the government. . .
4. Taxation
The Reserve Banks are deemed to be federal instrumentalities for purposes of immunity from state taxation.
5. States Taxation
Tests for determining whether an entity is federal instrumentality for purposes of protection from state or local action or taxation, is very broad: whether entity performs important governmental function.
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President Wilson admitted that he had made a mistake in helping to create the Federal Reserve and that it had destroyed our democracy (The New Freedom: A Call For the Emancipation of the Generous Energies of a People, chapter 8 Monopoly, or Opportunity?)
I am a most unhappy man. I have unwittingly ruined my country. A great industrial nation is controlled by its system of credit. Our system of credit is concentrated. The growth of the nation, therefore, and all our activities are in the hands of a few men. We have come to be one of the worst ruled, one of the most completely controlled and dominated governments in the civilized world.No longer a government by free opinion, no longer a government by conviction and the vote of the majority, but a government by the opinion and duress of a small group of dominant men.
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Let me issue and control a nation’s money, and I care not who writes its laws.
~ Mayer Amschel Bauer Rothschild (1773-1855), London financier, one of the founders of the international Rothschild banking dynasty, 1838.
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I would actually argue that controlling the stories, mythologies, and political narratives of a society is a greater power. But who controls the banking system controls the money supply. Who controls the money supply controls the economy. Who controls the economy controls who owns the media. And who owns the media controls the stories, mythologies, and political narratives of a society. So, sadly, it does go all the way back to the bankers.
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Whether or not one believes the Federal Reserve is essentially privately owned or controlled, it can’t be denied that it is one of the most (if not the most) powerful institutions in the US (and maybe the world) and one of the least (if not the least) democratic institution in the US. Many of the problematic economic decisions in recent history didn’t come from democratically elected leaders (even making the large assumption that democracy is still functioning). The Federal Reserve has made many decisions about our economy and there has been very little oversight even by Congress which theoretically has oversight. And, whether or not one favors democracy, the Federal Reserve doesn’t even make sense according to the small ‘r’ republican notion of a government that is free of both the influence of monarchy and private economic interests.
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There is nothing representative about the Federal Reserve. I see all of our major problems going to this rot within the highest echelons of our political and economic system. This rot isn’t limited to the Federal Reserve, but the Federal Reserve (along with the Military-Industrial Complex) is one of the institutions that represents this rot. This is concentrated power at its worse, meaning undemocratic, unrepresentative and largely unregulated. It’s a power unto itself beyond external control.
It (Central Bank ) gives the National Bank almost complete control of national finance. The few who understand the system will either be so interested in its profits, or so dependent on its favours, that there will be no opposition from that class… The great body of the people, mentally incapable of comprehending, will bear its burden without complaint, and perhaps without even suspecting that the system is inimical (contrary) to their interests.
– Rothschild Brothers of London writing to their associates in New York, June 25, 1863.
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There is even question of whether the Federal Reserve is constitutional.
Article 1, Section 8 states that Congress shall have the power to coin (create) money and regulate the value thereof. In 1935, the US Supreme Court ruled the Congress cannot constitutionally delegate its power to another group or body.
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It depends on the meaning of delegating and what can be delegated. Jefferson thought a central bank was unconstitutional by definition as it isn’t enumerated in the constitution. But there is the further question of ownership. The 12 Federal Reserve banks are privately owned, but defenders of the Federal Reserve argue that nonetheless these privately owned banks are under the direct control of the President and Congress along with those in the Federal Reserve who are appointed through the political process.

So, it becomes an issue of how much power and influence the member banks have over the Federal Reserve vs how much power and influence the Federal Reserve has over the member banks. And it becomes an issue of which specific private interests own, control or otherwise has influence over the member banks. The fact that the Federal Reserve is so secretive makes these issues unclear. Also, the fact that the Federal Reserve bailed out foreign banks makes this lack of clarity downright murky, to say the least.

It’s impossible for the average person (or maybe even the average politician) to know what the Federal Reserve is and how it operates. Knowledge is power and ignorance is powerlessness. Secrecy is the province of authoritarian power structures which is antithetical to democracy.

Is a central bank constitutional? Second, even if a central bank is constitutional, is it constitutional for Congress to delegate its power to the Federal Reserve which includes privately owned banks? There is neither a clear and unquestionable constitutional validity to the general principle of a central bank nor specifically to the Federal Reserve. Then again, there isn’t a clear and unquestionable constitutional validity to most of what the government does. The constitution was vague and limited in what it spoke about.

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Eisenhower (who the Birchers called a commie) wrote,
You keep harping on the Constitution; I should like to point out that the meaning of the Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is. Consequently no powers are exercised by the Federal government except where such exercise is approved by the Supreme Court (lawyers) of the land.
I admit that the Supreme Court has in the past made certain decisions in this general field that have been astonishing to me. A recent case in point was the decision in the Phillips case. Others, and older ones, involved “interstate commerce.” But until some future Supreme Court decision denies the right and responsibility of the Federal government to do certain things, you cannot possibly remove them from the political activities of the Federal government.
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It’s interesting to hear Eisenhower’s perspective. He was an old school conservative… which means he was more liberal than most Democratic politicians today. Or, to put it another way, Eisenhower was a politician that is rarely seen today that genuinely believed in a government that served the people (“But to attain any success it is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it.”). Unlike cynical right-wingers, Eisenhower believed that federal government was morally justified.
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What is interesting about Eisenhower is that one could simultaneously say he was one of the most principled presidents of the 20th century and also a hypocrite. He defended democracy while criticizing the Military-Industrial Complex that undermines democracy. On the other hand, he used the CIA to overthrow the democratically-elected government of Iran and used the FBI to practice COINTELPRO on the American public. It’s sad that such a person represents the height of principled behavior among modern US presidents.
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Ignoring the hypocrisy, though, I find myself drawn toward agreement with his ‘liberal’ views of the role of government and the constitution. I differ from right-wingers in that I’m not necessarily against a central bank. It depends (as a liberal, it always comes down to “It depends”). For a smaller country with a simpler agrarian economy (such as the early US), a central bank was probably dangerous and unnecessary. However, for a larger country with a complex industrial/technological economy, a central bank may be a necessary risk. That said: Secretiveness is morally wrong in a democracy and must be fought against at every turn. And it’s probably unwise for privately owned banks to be involved in the central bank in any direct manner.
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The challenge is liberal voices such as mine are almost entirely unheard in the mainstream. The debate is made into a black/white issue of being entirely for or entirely against the Federal Reserve. Intelligent and informed nuance is lost in a battle of ideologies. As such, criticism of the Federal Reserve just gets dismissed as another right-wing conspiracy theory.