Public Intellectuals As Thought Leaders

“We are at a curious moment in the marketplace of ideas. It is the best of times for thought leaders. It is the worst of times for public intellectuals. It is the most disorienting of times for everyone else.”

That is what Daniel Drezner writes about in his piece at the Oxford University Press blog, The decline of public intellectuals. I understand the complaint, as it is far from unjustified. But I must admit that my perspective is different. I’ve seen too many bad examples of public intellectuals to be able to blame it all on thought leaders. Of course, that isn’t to say many thought leaders don’t deserve to share the blame.

My attitude on the subject is from taking a broader perspective on what it has meant to be an intellectual in the past and what it means today. In the past, most people were silenced, people such as myself. But it isn’t just that more people have access to being heard today. People also have more access to information and education than ever before. There simply are more smart educated people than there once was. Along with higher rates of high school graduation and college degrees, the average IQ has jumped up 20 points these past generations.

Yes, there are more thought leaders today. But there are also more public intellectuals. And generally there is simply more people involved in public debate. That is the only hope that we might one day have a functioning democracy. That is far from public intellectuals being in decline. It’s just that people don’t automatically bow down to them. When I think a public intellectual is wrong, I’ve challenged them and have done so with knowledge, even though I lack higher education. I’m more widely read than the average public intellectual, as understandably most public intellectuals have a field of expertise that has allowed them to gain public attention.

Is the world a worse place for there now being people who will force public intellectuals to be accountable and won’t let them slip past based solely on their claims of authority? This is a good thing and the author begrudgingly agrees to an extent, although one can sense that he is nostalgic for an earlier time when he imagines public intellectuals were respected. I’d point out that it wasn’t only the average person who was silenced in the past. Even most intellectuals and aspiring public intellectuals were silenced while a few public intellectuals dominated nearly all public debate, not always the cream of the crop rising to the top. There is no better time in all of history than right now to be a public intellectual or be involved in public debate in any manner.

Besides, anyone who thinks bad ideas didn’t flourish in the past is utterly clueless about history. And when a public intellectual makes statements to that effect, he should be confronted about it. The role of the public intellectual hasn’t fundamentally changed. And don’t for a moment think that public intellectuals never spread bad ideas. In fact, bad ideas would rarely become popular if not for public intellectuals. This is because there is no clear distinction between a public intellectual and a thought leader.

To be fair, he does make a good point about think tanks. There is big money promoting bad ideas. And it is hard for public intellectuals to fight against that. And he is right that the only solution is “is more discord and more debate.” But also more demand for honesty and integrity, especially from public intellectuals, whether working for think tanks or not (unfortunately, even scientists are increasingly getting their funding from corporations and corporate-related organizations). When a bad idea gets spread by a public intellectual, which happens on a regular basis, it gives that bad idea legitimacy. That is more dangerous than a thousand thought leaders spouting bullshit.

I read a Wall Street Journal article the other day, Jonathan Haidt on the Cultural Roots of Campus Rage by Bari Weiss (full text). He quotes from an interview he had with Haidt, a public intellectual who has increasingly become a thought leader. I found it a depressing experience to read his view because it was once again framed by a standard right-wing culture war narrative. He asserted college activists as being part of a dangerous campus religion, ignoring the incident in question at UC Berkley was instigated by unknown masked agitators who may have had no association with the student body.

Anyway, what about the long history of students protesting, sometimes violently, at universities that goes back centuries? Why is students protesting now all of a sudden a sign of activism turning into a religion? And what about all the other threatening acts by those who aren’t students: the attacks by Trump supporters, the recent increase in hate crimes, the violence directed at women’s clinic workers, the rancher supporters pointing guns at federal agents, the right-wingers who occupied federal land with weapons, etc? Is every act of protest to be considered religious or quasi-religious in nature? As always, there is historical amnesia and a lack of larger context.

Because Haidt is a respected public intellectual, his weird brand of conservative-minded liberalism gets pushed to center stage, the supposed ‘mainstream’, where he has immense influence. Worse still, many other public intellectuals will defend people like him, even when they step far outside their narrow field of expertise. To be honest, Haidt’s opinion on this matter is no more relevant than that of any random person. He is the kind of public-intellectual-cum-thought-leader that is disconnected from reality, arguing that academia has shifted far left even while being oblivious to the fact that the majority of Americans have also shifted left, further left than academia on such issues as economics. This has left those like Haidt trying to hold their ground in center-right liberalism, as the rest of the society moves further away in the opposite direction.

More than anything, what we need is more common people closer to realities on the ground, yet those who are well read and well informed enough to be involved in public debate. Their voices need to be promoted, as they often have perspectives that are lacking among the formally educated. For example, if we want to have a debate about poverty, the voices that are most important are the poor who have genuine insights to add, insights that most in the economically comfortable intellectual class would likely never consider. That came up in recent corporate media obsession with Appalachia, where a few desperately poor whites get all the attention while intellectuals and activists in Appalachia get ignored because they confuse the narrative, a point made by Elizabeth Catte among others. We need to rely less on a few famous public intellectuals to have an opinion on everything. That just leads to an increase in the incidents of the smart idiot effect.

I’m not sure the exact solution. I wish everyone involved would take truth-seeking more seriously, such as not making wild claims and accusations in order to get corporate media attention. I feel like the role of public intellectual has been cheapened, as so many attention whores chase the spotlight and compete for book deals. But I guess that is to be expected in this kind of capitalist society where even academics win the competition of ideas through fame and money. It doesn’t matter that there thousands of scholars with deeper understanding and insight than someone like Haidt. They don’t tell the corporate media hacks what they want to hear, the popular narratives that sell advertising.

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As a side note, this is hardly a new issue for me. I’ve long fought for a more inclusive and democratic vision of public intellectuality. If you publicly express your intellect on a regular basis, then you are a public intellectual. All that it takes is to be curious with a love of learning, willing to question and doubt, and a desire to engage with others.

I take this seriously. And I’m not tolerant of bullshit. I hold public intellectuals to a high standard because their role in society is so important. That standard remains the same no matter who the person is. Authority, perceived or real, doesn’t change the fact that a public intellectual has a responsibility to the public and so the public has the responsibility to hold them accountable. Public debate is a two way street, a discussion and not a lecture.

In that light, I’ve seen it as one of my roles to offer judgment where I deem it necessary. Along with criticism of Jonathan Haidt, I’ve turned my critical gaze to other public intellectuals, sometimes interacting with them directly in the process: Rick ShenkmanPaul BloomKenan MalikCris Campbell, and I suppose there might have been others.

Funhouse Mirrors of Corporate Media

Many talk about biases in the media, by which they typically mean the ‘mainstream’ (corporate) media. Most people would agree that biases exist. Yet it is hard to find agreement about what those biases are. Maybe that is an important part of it. The issue isn’t just about biases, but how our very perception of biases becomes biased. We lose perspective because our entire reality has become so mediated by media. The more our lives become saturated with media, the less we are able to see media clearly.

It’s similar to looking into a funhouse mirror and trying to discern the meaning in the warped image one sees reflected back. Now imagine if you were surrounded by funhouse mirrors on all sides, everywhere you went. To understand the distortions of one mirror, you’d look into another mirror with different distortions. We’ve come to see the funhouse mirror as reality. We are simply arguing over which funhouse mirror is least distorted or else distorted in a way that confirms our own expectations. What most of us never think about is who are the people who make the mirrors and remain hidden behind them.

Maybe the purpose of so much media isn’t in what it shows but in what it doesn’t show. The bias isn’t necessarily toward a particular ideology but rather away from the real source of power and influence. It’s a tool of distraction, a key component of politics as spectacle. If you want to know what are the issues of greatest importance and what are the views of greatest explanatory power, pay close attention to what is ignored and dismissed, what is precluded and occluded. Look for what is absent and lacking, the gap in between what is stated and the space outside of the frame where something should be.

The failure of corporate media is as much or more ommission than it is commission. Various media figures attacking each other about their supposed biases is yet more distraction. Arguing over biases is a safe and managed debate, each side playing the role of controlled opposition for the other. But what is it that both sides avoid? What is disallowed by the propaganda model of media? What is not being spoken and represented? What is missing?

Corporate Bias of ‘Mainstream’ Media

When people make accusations of liberal bias in the media, what are they even talking about? Are they utterly disconnected from reality? The so-called mainstream media is corporate media owned by a handful of parent corporations. Their only motive is profit.

Anyway, it’s not as if there is a lack of US media with a clear political right bias, both conservative or right-wing. This includes major media with large audiences and immense influence, but some of it is more directed at niche ideological groups and demographics. There is: Fox News, Yahoo News, Newsmax, Drudge Report, The Blaze, Breitbart News Network, Rush Limbaugh Show, Sean Hannity Show, Glenn Beck Program, The Dennis Miller Show, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, The New York Post, the Arizona Republic, The Detroit Free Press, Dallas Morning News, Cincinnati Enquirer, Reason, National Review, Cato Journal, The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard, The American, The American Conservative, City Journal, Chronicles, Human Events, The Independent Review, The National Interest, The New American, Policy Review, Regulation, Townhall Magazine, World, World Affairs, Newsweek, etc. And that doesn’t even include most of the moderate conservative media that gets labeled as ‘liberal’.

It’s not as if those on the political right are lacking media to support their worldview and confirm their biases. In fact, research shows that most media consumers on the political right exist within an echo chamber. The only reason they think the rest of media is biased is because the political right media that dominates keeps repeating this and, as the old propaganda trick goes, anything repeated enough to a large enough audience will be treated as if it were fact.

Here is one of the differences between ‘liberal’ media and ‘conservative’ media. On the political left, there is maybe more diversity of sources, none of which dominate all the others. But on the political right, Fox News controls the messaging, talking points, and framing for the rest of the news outlets that share a similar bias. Related to that, most Americans are further to the left on major issues than is the corporate media, as they are further to the left of both main political parties. When you are talking about media on the political right, that is bias that is extremely to the right of the general public. Maybe that is why more Americans are increasingly turning to alternative media, primarily available through the internet.

Another thing is that there is no simple relationship between media and viewers. Plenty of social science research shows that the liberal-minded tend to be more open and curious about the world, specifically about what is different. A large part of the audience of political right media is probably not people who are on the political right. I know that has been true of me. Because of curiosity, I can’t help but look at diverse sources, even when it just makes me angry. I doubt there are as many conservatives and right-wingers consuming news reporting from the New York Times, MSNBC, and NPR as there are liberals and left-wingers with the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and Rush Limbaugh (although that would depend if one is talking about symbolic identities or operational ideologies).

According to Pew (Political Polarization & Media Habits), conservatives don’t get much news from a variety of political right media, as about half of the consistently conservative get most of their information from Fox News (with 84% having watched Fox News in the past week), a pattern not seen among consistent liberals. To put it in further context, the same Pew poll shows that those who are politically mixed get more of their news from sources that right-wingers claim to have a political left bias, which seems to indicate that centrists disagree with right-wingers about perceived media bias. In fact, the more liberal the demographic, the less they relied on a single news source (other data shows that the even more liberal and leftist young demographic relies on an even greater diversity of sources with more emphasis on alternative media and social media, including “approximately 85 percent of millennials regularly follow domestic and international current events both online and through print publications. Most millennials are following at least 10 topics at any one time and around 73 percent of young people are more interested in gathering information about viewpoints that they oppose than in learning more about stances they agree with.”). Also, that Pew data shows that most of the political left media clumps closer to the political center, at least in terms of viewers of mainstream media, whereas much of the political right media is far from the average viewer.

Comparing the two sides is false equivalency. All media is assumed to be liberal or leftist if it doesn’t strongly and ideologically promote some combination of:

  • blatant propaganda, political obstructionism, extreme opposition to democracy, voter suppression/purges/disenfranchisement, gerrymandering;
  • near-anarchist anti-government rhetoric, Ayn Rand Objectivism, right-wing (pseudo-)libertarianism, inverted totalitarianism, neoliberal corporatism;
  • proto-fascism, hyper-patriotism, war hawk neoconservatism, expansionist neo-imperialism, geopolitical interventionism, military adventurism, continuous war of aggression, military-industrial complex, intelligence-security-police state, gun nut militancy, oppressive law and order, mass incarceration, tough-on-crime laws;
  • religious fundamentalism, theocracy, Creationism, anti-Semitism, pro-Israeli, Social Darwinism, eugenics, hardcore social conservatism, white supremacy, ethnonationalism, scapegoating, dog whistle politics, race-baiting, red-baiting, attack politics, fear-mongering, hate-mongering, paranoid conspiracy theory;
  • climate change denialism, anti-science, anti-intellectualism, anti-immigration, anti-public education, anti-welfare, anti-immigration, basically anti-everything that involves social democracy, civil society, human rights, compassion and basic decency;
  • reverse political correctness, demagoguery, ideological purity, openly loyal Republican partisanship;
  • et cetera.

Everything else is part of a powerful secret cabal of leftist special interest groups, Jewish media moguls, journalist operatives, devious intellectual elite, and God-hating scientific dogmatists who have somehow taken over the global corporate media and are conspiring to push Democratic brainwashing, liberal indoctrination, left-wing propaganda, and the Communist-Islamic-Secular takeover of society. Yet oddly, when considering the details, that supposed liberal or leftist corporate media expresses views that are about the same as or to the right of majority public opinion.

The moderate-to-center-right media gets accused of being far left, the actual far left gets entirely ignored, and the far right media controls the entire framing of the debate about bias. Those who identify with or lean toward far right politics (liberarians, Objectivists, theocrats, etc) are regularly heard in the political right media. Many have their own shows, even on major outlets such as Fox News. When there are political campaigns and debates, we hear from panels that include these right-wing views. But when was the last time you noticed an equivalent openly ideological, hardcore left-winger (communist, anarcho-syndicalist, anti-imperialist, etc) with any prominent position in the supposed liberal-to-leftist media, with their own show or as a regular guest?

If you want to know the actual bias, look for who is making the accusation and getting heard. It is the right-wingers with massive backing from right-wing corporate media who are declaring that corporate media is left-wing. In their control of political debate, these right-wingers are using misdirection as part of their propaganda model. The fact of the matter is that all “mainstream media” is corporate media and, in our society, that means powerful big money corporatist media that is inseparable from the corporatist political system. There is no separation between the elites in government, corporations, and media. It’s all the same establishment of wealth and power.

It’s all rather pointless. According to corporate media and corporatist politicians, the views held by a majority of Americans—such as support for higher minimum wage, public option or single payer healthcare, abortion rights, stronger gun regulations, etc—represents an operational liberal bias (as opposed to the symbolic rhetoric so commonly used by the powerful to control debate and manipulate voters), which might be true in a sense if one is to call majority public opinion to be a bias. Maybe that is related to why, along with such negative opinions of ‘mainstream’ politics, only 6% of Americans (2% of young adults) trust ‘mainstream’ media. When we talk about bias, we have to ask who is being accused of bias, who is making the accusations of bias, what is the accuser’s bias, and how this relates to the biases of the general public along with various demographics. Compared to most Americans, the entire ‘mainstream’ media is biased toward the right-wing. But it’s unsurprising that, according to the right-wing, the rest of media and all of reality is biased to the left-wing. I’m not sure why we should take these right-wingers seriously. It does tell me much about corporate media that they love to obsess over and promote these right-wing accusations that largely come out of corporate media.

These days, with even NPR funded by big biz, where in the ‘mainstream’ media is someone supposed to look for hard-hitting news reporting and morally courageous investigative journalism about the wealthy and powerful who own the corporate media and control the corporatist political system? Once upon a time, back when newspapers were the main source of info for the majority of Americans, most newspapers had both a business section and a labor section. There also used to be prominent newspapers that were dedicated solely or primarily to labor issues. Is it surprising that as almost all ‘mainstream’ media has been bought up by big biz that the news reporting critical of big biz has disappeared from what has become corporate media pushing a corporatist worldview?

If there is a liberal bias among the corporate media gatekeepers, it is specifically the neoliberalism of inverted totalitarianism that is supported by a state-linked corporatist propaganda model. Calling that ‘liberal’ would comfort few liberals and even fewer leftists. There is a kind of liberalism that dominates in our society, including in ‘mainstream’ media, but the issue is about what kind of liberalism is this. Even many conservatives claim to be ‘liberal’ (e.g., classical liberals). So, what is this supposed ‘liberal’ bias? Is the corporate media actually biased to the left, considering the viewing public is itself biased even further to the left? So, left of what exactly… left of the right-wing?

It is true that the entertainment media is often rather liberal, but that is because it is seeking to make profit by entertaining the fairly liberal American viewing public. Liberalism sells because we live in a liberal society. There is nothing shocking about it. On a broad level, our entire society and everyone in it is liberal. Even American conservatives are, in this sense, just varieties of liberals. The liberal paradigm has dominated the West for a couple of centuries now. But it is a liberalism of the status quo, not a liberalism of left-wing revolution. This liberalism is not just neoliberal in its capitalism and corporatism. It also has much of that old school Whiggish progressivism favored by the classical liberals, the ideology that promoted imperialism, colonialism and genocide in order to spread freedom and democracy. It’s a paternalistic, authoritarian, and condescending liberalism that has become the heart of so-called American ‘conservatism’. The unscrupuous libertinism of our society may seem opposite of conservative ideals, but it is inseparable from capitalism and certainly not embraced by much of the political left.

Is the political right hoping to enforce right-wing bias onto the public, no matter what they’d prefer, just to make sure they are indoctrinated properly? The problem is those who complain the most about a ‘liberal’ bias are the very people who are the least conservative. Instead, they are right-wing reactionaries who in their radicalism want to push society even further into a skewed fantasy that has nothing to do with traditionalism.

Just listen to president Trump complain about the media and have his words parroted by the alt-right, even as he is the least conservative president in US history. In comparison, he makes Obama’s administration seem like a stalwart defense of traditionalism. After decades of capitulating to the far right and serving their corporatist interests, it’s amusing to watch some in the center-right corporate media finally protesting because their status quo is under attack by the far right. To the far right, the corporate media can never be far enough right, at least not until they are under authoritarian control of an Orwellian Ministry of Truth.

I wanted to finish with a different but connected issue. The Pew data I mentioned above offered something that right-wingers latched onto. Consistent liberals are more likely than consistent conservatives to stop talking to someone because of political disagreement. But what this misses is that liberals are more likely to talk to people who they disagree with. A larger percentage of conservatives, because they live in ideological isolation and are trapped in a media echo chamber, never interact with anyone they disagree with. They can’t stop talking to people they never started talking to in the first place.

As a typical person on the political left, I seek out diverse news sources and so interact with diverse people. For every person I intentionally stop talking to, I meet dozens of other new people with all kinds of views. So, I still end up interacting with more people I disagree with than the average consistent conservative.

This is relevant to the perception of bias. Conservatives are less likely to actively seek diverse sources of news and less likely to interact with diverse people. Maybe it’s partly because, as data has shown, the most consistent conservatives tend to live in homogeneous communities and so are never forced to acknowledge anything outside of their reality tunnel (whereas liberals are attracted to diverse communities for the very reason they are diverse). What this means is that the political right accusation of political left bias isn’t based on much if any actual familiarity with media outside of the political right.

From my political left perspective, it is a thousand times better to listen to someone even if you later decide the interaction is undesirable than to never listen at all, to preemptively shut out all views that disagree, to accuse others of bias before you can even honestly claim to know what their views are.

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About this topic, there is a bad article by Ross Douthat, The Missing Right-of-Center Media.

I only mention it because the comment section is a worthy read, helping to explain everything wrong with articles like that. What makes it amusing is that it is an article from the New York Times, supposedly among the most leftist of the liberal media. The reality is that there is no missing right-of-center media. The New York Times, publishing writers like Douthat, is right-of-center media.

More helpful are two answers to a Quora question, Which media outlets in the USA are right-wing and which are left-wing? One answer is from William Goff and another from Mitchell Langbert.

I could offer tons of links to articles and such, of course. But there is no point. Besides, I’ve written about this enough before. The only reason I wrote this new post was because of the callers I heard on CSPAN who probably represent the minority of the population that still gets most of their news from corporate ‘mainstream’ media. I still retain the capacity to be shocked by how many people still don’t understand such basic things as how media bias actually operates.

Anywho, here are my previous posts:

Conservatives Watching Liberal Media
Bias About Bias

What Does Liberal Bias Mean?

This Far Left And No Further
Controlling the Narrative: Part 1
Response to Rightwing Misinformation
Black and White and Re(a)d All Over
NPR: Liberal Bias?
The Establishement: NPR, Obama, Corporatism, Parties
Man vs Nature, Man vs Man: NPR, Parking Ramps, etc

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MSMsplaining Poor Whites.

There is a Vox video about the Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare) and Trump voters. The article that goes along with it was written by Sarah Kliff.

The author is an award winning journalist who has interviewed Obama about the ACA, although her education isn’t in journalism. She is now a senior editor at Vox and regularly reports on healthcare. Vox, owned by Vox Media, is a major news website founded in 2002 by Ezra Klein. It is serious journalism of the mainstream variety. Their model is what they call “explanatory journalism”, the above mentioned video and article being prime examples.

Vox has received both praise and criticism. There is plenty of negativity toward Vox from the political right, but that is mostly a disagreement about which ideological bias is preferable. More interesting is a statement made by Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept. He writes about, in relation to the Democratic Party, the liberal media such as Vox “suppressing reporting that reflects negatively on them and instead confines itself to hagiography.”

I state all of that as a way to frame Sarah Kliff’s journalism. She has acted as a cheerleader for Obamacare. I’m not against people supporting what they believe in, but it isn’t what I’d prefer from journalism. The video ends up less interesting for this reason. Kliff is telling a story and it falls into a mainstream narrative framing that is somewhere between unhelpful and irritating.

This has to do with the mainstream media’s recent obsession with poor whites, especially poor rural whites. It isn’t limited to the liberal media. Everyone has been turning the spotlight on this minority population, as if their existence is supposed to explain everything. Charles Murray wrote about poor whites in Coming Apart and J.D. Vance did so in Hillbilly Elegy, both of which largely downplay economic realities and portray this population as a failure, having supposedly failed not just economically but also according to morality and culture, imagination and self-initiative. Going by Vance’s account, you’d think that if you look at poor whites wrong they might shoot you or beat you up, that is when they aren’t doing drugs and slutting around.

It’s been bugging me. Leave the poor whites alone. Or if you feel that understanding them is really going to help you understand the sorry state of America, at least look to authors worth reading such as Joe Bageant or Nancy Isenberg. To be honest, I don’t see anything particularly special about poor whites. They aren’t all that different from any other variety of poor people. Poverty sucks. I suppose it’s nice that the upper classes are noticing, for whatever that is worth.

It’s not that Kliff’s journalism is horrible nor what is seen on the political right. I actually did like Kliff’s video at first, but it bothered me the more I thought about it. I have no reason to think she wasn’t trying her best to be fair. The problem is that the upper classes (including the upper middle class) are so disconnected from reality on the ground that they bring so many biases to any attempt at understanding. This is why they fall back on stale narratives. The mainstream media view of race and class hasn’t fundamentally changed since the early 20th century. We keep being told the same basic stories over and over, as if the stories were all that meaningful in the first place and as if nothing has changed in all that time.

* * *

Let me give a detailed response to the video. But first I should explain what the video focuses on.

The setup is this. Sarah Kliff visited some white people in a particular area of Kentucky, Whitley County. The reason the county is relevant at all is because a woman living there, Kathy Oller, who has worked signing people up for Obamacare. This woman, horror of horrors, admitted that she voted for Trump in the hope that he would improve Obamacare. One unstated assumption is that the few people she interviews in that place can be generalized to all Trump voters. Another unstated assumption is that Obamacare was a primary reason or factor behind most people voting for Trump.

It would have been nice if she had talked to Whitley County residents who supported or voted for candidates other than Trump. What percentage of this population would have voted for Sanders, if he had been nominated? It would have been even better if she had talked to the majority who probably didn’t vote at all. I doubt most eligible voters voted for Trump because most poor eligible voters don’t vote. Why didn’t she talk to people who didn’t vote and ask them why they didn’t?

I’d also like to hear from those who aren’t eligible voters such as prisoners and ex-cons. Poor rural areas have high rates of incarceration. There is a detention center in Whitley County and a federal prison in adjacent McCreary County. Many people move to live near where their family members are incarcerated, to make visitation easier. I wonder what those people thought about the various candidates and about politics in general, specifically political reform. Why do we treat these people as if they are irrelevant? Are they not also citizens who will be effected by public policy?

Also, it would have been useful to hear from the 3% of blacks (and other minorities) living in Whitley county. It’s easy to forget that there are still large populations of rural blacks in the South. Besides maybe Hispanics, blacks were the last large racial/ethnic group to become majority urban. Whether rural or urban, with a population of 35,637, Whitley County includes over a thousand minorities. Plus, there are thousands of minorities in the surrounding counties, along with around 700,000 minorities in Kentucky (about half being black). Minorities are among the poor in Kentucky and they too have been hit hard by economic problems. Yet not a single minority was interviewed, as if minority Kentuckians don’t exist because they don’t fit mainstream stereotypes. The words ‘blacks’ and ‘minorities’ weren’t even mentioned. And the only non-white person shown in the video and discussed in the article was Barack Obama. There were minorities who voted for Trump. Who were these minorities? And what were the expecting from such a vote?

We’ll never know from this kind of “explanatory journalism”.

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I always wonder about the background.

I know quite a bit about Kentucky from doing genealogical and historical research of the state. I had family there from the late 1700s to the late 1800s (some of my earliest Kentucky family came from Pulaski County which is adjacent to McCreary County and nearly touching the corner of Whitley County). Kentucky used to have a large number of blacks, about a quarter of the state’s population, and they were mostly rural. When I visited there a few years ago, I didn’t see a single black person in any rural area.

Most blacks either left the state or moved to the cities, as the early 1900s began a violent time in Kentucky. There was racial cleansing and the enforcement of sundown towns—see: James Loewen’s Sundown Towns, Elliot Jaspin’s Buried in the Bitter Waters, and George Wright’s Racial Violence in Kentucky, 1865-1940. All three of those books discuss a well documented Whitley County incident in Corbin, Kentucky that happened in the fall after the Red Summer (1919). Loewen notes that a least certain residents were still trying to maintain it as a sundown town into the 1990s and some suspect that it is still a sundown town.

On a positive note, I’d point out two things about the 1919 incident. The Corbin mob violence was immediately condemned by the then editor of the local newspaper. And the mob leader was prosecuted by the state. But less positive, the moral atrocity of this incident was wiped from the public memory in the local population and recent local officials have fought anyone attempting to bring it to public attention. Even so, the reputation of these places aren’t forgotten by blacks, as to this day many fear going near towns like Corbin.

In terms of demographics, Jaspin offers the details (Kindle Locations 2874-2877):

“In fact, census records show that the black population in Corbin, which had been sixty in 1910, was exactly three in 1920: Emma Woods and her sixty-five-year-old boarder Steve Stansbury and the affectionately nicknamed “Nigger” Dennis. Beyond the city limits, there was a lesser but still substantial drop. Laurel County saw its black population cut in half from 657 to 333 between 1910 and 1920. Whitley County’s black population went from 1,111 to 600. By 1930 it would be cut in half again, and after 1960 it would never again rise above 150.”

To put this in a larger context, Loewen writes (pp. 71-72):

“In the first two decades of the twentieth century, whites expelled African Americans from almost the entire Cumberland Plateau, a huge area extending from the Ohio River near Huntington, West Virginia, southwest through Corbin, Kentucky, crossing into Tennessee, where it marks the division between east and middle Tennessee, and finally ending in northern Alabama. In most parts of the plateau throughout most of the twentieth century, when night came to the Cumberlands, African Americans had better be absent.69 The twenty Cumberland counties in eastern Kentucky had 3,482 African Americans in 1890, or 2% of the region’s 175,631 people. By 1930, although their overall population had increased by more than 50%, these counties had only 1,387 black residents. The decline continued: by 1960 the African American population of these counties had declined to just 531, or 0.2%, one-tenth the 1890 proportion.”

This is far from ancient history, as Loewen explains (p. 381):

“Corbin, a sundown town in the Kentucky Cumberlands, had not relented as of 1990. In his 1991 movie on the community, Trouble Behind, Robby Heason asked a young white man if it would be a good thing for blacks to move into Corbin. “Black people should not live here,” he replied. “They never have, and they shouldn’t.” He did not know that African Americans had lived in Corbin until whites drove them out at gunpoint in 1919, and his attitude surely boded ill should a black family try to move in. As of 2000, almost none had; Corbin’s 7,742 people included just 6 African Americans; adjacent North Corbin had just 1 African American among 1,662 inhabitants. Around 1990, McDonald’s brought in an African American to manage a new restaurant, but he and his family left before it even opened, reportedly after a cross was burned in his yard.”

Apparently, since that time, one black man moved to Corbin and has remained. So, I guess it is possible for a black man to not entirely fear for his life now in that town. But few blacks want to press their luck. Still, maybe this signals a positive change, however slight.

I would put all of this in perspective. This kind of oppressive racism was as bad or worse all across the Northern and Western United States, including in Solid Blue states. Oregon is the only place that was officially a sundown state, excluding minorities entirely by law. Oregon also has high rates of white poverty and unemployment. How has Oregon voted in presidential elections for several decades? Democrats every time. Racial cleansing and sundown towns is how so many blacks ended up concentrated in inner cities. The point being that this doesn’t make Whitley County atypical in any way. It doesn’t seem to have made the residents any more strongly and consistently partisan, as I note further down. Besides, much of the exodus was at least partly for economic reasons, causing many whites to flee as well. It was often the economic stress that led to or fed into racial conflict.

I was looking at a map of the percentage of blacks in each Kentucky county. Whitley County is way down in the southeast part. It is mostly surrounded by counties that have relatively higher percentages of black population. McCreary County next door has 5.8% blacks and nearby Clay County has 4.4%. What is interesting is that, according to the 2000 census, McCreary only had 0.63% blacks. The video says there are 97% whites in Whitley and I assume that means the other 3% is mostly blacks, but in 2000 there were 0.34% black residents.

Maybe some of the harshest racial tensions are beginning to break down. The living memory of racial cleansing is gone with our only being a few years away from the hundred year anniversary of the Red Summer.

Anyway, the changing demographics seems to indicate some shifting of populations, since birth rates couldn’t have that kind of impact. There has been increasing numbers of Northerners, black and white, moving South. That has to do with cheap housing and employment. I’m sure there is cheap housing in the poorest counties. But obviously there is much unemployment, at least in Whitley. The question is why would there be population shifts, unless the changing racial percentages has as much or more to do with who is moving out than who is moving in.

There is something odd going on here. The unemployment rate now there is 5.7%. That isn’t particularly high compared to the national average at 4.9. It is about half of what it was in the years following the Great Recession and about the same as it was before. It was much higher back in the early-to-mid 1990s, almost to the levels following the Great Recession. Then it dropped below the present national average in the late 1990s.

Sure, the people living there are poor. But the vast majority of them are working and they live in an area that has cheap living costs. They may not have affordable healthcare now, but most of them never had affordable healthcare at any point in their lives. In objective terms, there is nothing obviously worse about their lives now than in the past. Yet these are the populations that for some reason are experiencing worsening mortality rates. It’s not loss the loss of good mining jobs that has changed recently, as good mining jobs have mostly been gone for decades.

So, what’s happened? Drug addiction and suicide rates are unsurprisingly high. And they are worsening for these poor rural populations. But these are results, not causes. They are indicative of something going on that is making many of these people’s lives seem intolerably bad.

* * *

It’s also interesting to look at voting patterns.

Whitley County is far from being a Solid Red county. In the last 20 presidential elections, the county has half the time gone to Republicans and the other half to Democrats. They voted for Bill Clinton twice and voted for Franklin D. Roosevelt four times, among other Democratic candidates. Of course, it was a way more Democratic state in the early 20th century. It was even more Democratic not that long ago. In the county, 15% are now registered as Democrats, but more than a third were back in 2000. It would have been even higher during the Clinton administration and earlier.

Whitley County is party of the Eastern Kentucky Coalfield. Coal mining is known for its history of militant labor organizing and labor unions are known for their support of the Democratic Party (along with radical left-wing politics): “During the Great Depression, New Deal programs and the organizing of the United Mine Workers of America made many of the eastern counties Democratic” (Wikipedia). Even as other regions turned toward the political right, the labor solidarity in coal country helped maintain for much longer that old school Progressivism. Maybe it is unsurprising that, as coal mining jobs disappeared and local labor power was broken, the longstanding Democratic alliance faded.

It’s not like these people are ignorant partisans. When a candidate speaks to their concerns, they’ll vote for either party. Once upon a time, that meant Democrats. It isn’t as if they didn’t vote for Obama just because he was a black guy. They also didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Al Gore. The Democrats have ignored them since Bill Clinton and even he only gave them lip service, which was still more than what most Democrats offered. According to inside sources, Hillary ignored Bill’s advice to focus on working class whites. Why exactly would these people vote for a party that treats them like they don’t exist or don’t matter?

It’s rather unsurprising that they voted for Trump, considering they’ve voted Republican in the last several presidential elections. It might have had nothing to do with Trump (nor with Obama and Clinton). That is what is wrong with the video. It portrays their voting for a Republican candidate this time as somehow different than when they voted for Mitt Romney, John McCain, and George W. Bush. The better question is why did they entirely stop voting for Democrats after Bill Clinton left office.

Here is a major problem with this kind of news entertainment, as I mentioned earlier. It is falling into a mainstream narrative. It doesn’t really explain anything, focusing as it does on one single narrow issue, that of Obamacare in relation to the presidential election. It tells a story and tries to cram the lives of real people into the storyline. But the narrative framing doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

Why is the mainstream media looking to rural whites to explain Trump? Most whites aren’t rural. And more specifically, most whites who voted for Trump aren’t rural. Actually, the earliest and strongest supporters of Trump during his campaign were economically above average, compared to the general population. How is looking at a poor county in a rural state supposed to explain Trump as somehow different when that county has voted for Republicans in the previous four elections?

The implication is that this is about poor rural people. But it isn’t even clear what percentage of whites in that county are rural. The unemployment rate is close to the national average and most of the population would work in whatever major cities are nearby.

More interesting to know would be to look at the places that voted for Obama in one or both of the last elections but then voted for Trump. Those places would be better indicators of what has changed. The problem is many of those places are urban, suburban, and exurban. They don’t fit into the mainstream narrative. Why did strongly Democratic states such as Wisconsin and Michigan go to Trump? Wisconsin isn’t known for its desperately poor white population and Michigan has a large population of minorities and union members. How would any mainstream narrative explain that?

Also, explain to me a rural state like Minnesota that is majority white. Why has Minnesota not gone to a Republican presidential candidate since 1972? And why is Minnesota the only state to not have voted for Ronald Reagan either time? Similarly, why did so many majority white states in the rural Midwest vote for Obama, even after Obamacare? And then why did some of those states then vote for Trump? Riddle me that, Batman.

* * *

Out of curiosity, I looked at the Whitley County data for rural versus urban. It is mostly rural, at 65% of the population. I’d first emphasize that this also means 35% are urban. And urbanites vote at higher rates, partly because they have easier access to polling stations.

A second thing is that rural can describe a diversity of residential situations. Barely outside of the city I live in are many ‘rural’ residents living in old farm houses and trailer parks (my parents’ house is in a fully urban upper middle class neighborhood within the city limits and it is just a few blocks from rural country roads among vast stretches of farmland). Most of those ‘rural’ folk work here in the city and often with decently paying jobs, only living outside of the city for cheap housing. With that in mind, what percentage of that rural population in Whitley County lives near an urban area or commutes to a job in a city? More importantly, what kind of jobs are they working? What is the pay and benefits? And what are the costs of living?

Here is another thought. I know there is a difference between the reported unemployment rate and the real unemployment rate. The data I was looking at probably was only the reported data. Around 95% of the population there isn’t reported as unemployed. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are employed either. We’d need to differentiate between the percentage employed and the percentage permanently unemployed, both sets of data not shown in the standard unemployment data.

My guess is that the permanently unemployment rate is higher there. If so, how high? Even so, the real unemployment data has been kept hidden since the Reagan administration. It’s not anything new. The fact remains that unemployment was lower by the time Obama left office, unless there really has been an increase in the permanently unemployed in such counties.

It’s hard to find accurate data. And even harder to determine what it means. On what basis are we to conclude that Whitley County is representative of the average white person, the average poor white person, the average rural white person, and/or the average Trump voter? Also, how do we know the people interviewed in that video are representative of the average person in that county, in that state, or in that region? It would have been nice if they had used the interviews alongside public opinion data.

Some historical background would have been helpful as well, even simply for the sake of telling a good story. There were many angles that could have been taken that would have offered far more depth of analysis and insight. By Vox’s asserted standard of explanatory journalism, the video and article was rather miserly with the explanatory details. I’m left with more questions than answers. It fails as worthy news reporting. It certainly doesn’t meet the standards of investigative journalism. Instead, it ends up being yet another human interest story, eliciting from viewers some combination of sympathy, outrage, and perplexity. Whatever the viewer response, it sells advertising and makes profit.

These criticisms wouldn’t be so important if they weren’t so widely applicable to all of mainstream media. This is just one example among many and far from the worse. It stood out to me for the reasons that, by the standards of mainstream media, it is above average in quality. It is a well made video and interesting to watch. It does have some basic value, even if only in hearing a few ordinary Americans explain how they view the political situation, just as long as you keep in mind that they aren’t necessarily representative of anyone else.

* * *

As fun as it is to chastise MSM hacks for their lack of curiosity and vision (or whatever exactly they are lacking), I feel like ending on a different note. Let me bring in the personal, by offering some observations from my own experience. After that, I’ll add some concluding thoughts.

I find no difficulty or resistance to pointing out the problems of whites who are some combination of Southern, poor, and rural. I have some sense of who these people are. My paternal grandmother was from the Deep South. Much of my mother’s family spent a couple of centuries in Kentuckiana, an area I’ve often visited. My mother, a Hoosier by birth, had a Southern-sounding accent when she was younger. I was born right at the edge of Appalachia in Ohio where I spent my earliest years of childhood. I’ve lived in the Carolinas, South and North. I’ve been friends with rednecks, dated hillbillies, and fraternized with lower class whites of a diverse variety. I live in a majority white state in the Midwest where rural life is a common experience.

Since the video is about Kentucky, let me deal with that. A few years back, my parents and I took a trip down there and it gave me felt sense of a part of the South that I didn’t know as well, even though I already indirectly knew of it from visiting my Hoosier family over the decades. In doing genealogical research, we went to many rural counties, including in southern Kentucky. I did see in some places a kind of rural poverty I hadn’t often come across before, but overall it didn’t seem like a bad place to live. Despite how it gets portrayed, Kentucky isn’t a hellhole of hopeless poverty. There are thriving big cities there, even a metropolitan area that extends up into Indiana. The county seats seemed like nice towns like found anywhere else—with public schools and public libraries, along with civic organizations.

What stood out to me most of all was how friendly and helpful people were. Kentucky has some of the feeling of the Midwest. In many ways (geographically, historically, and culturally), it is as much part of the Lower Midwest as it is part of the South. It is the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln and the state government never sought to secede during the Civil War (initially declaring neutrality and then joining the Union). I didn’t meet a single person who fit the stereotype of a mean redneck or threatening hillbilly, as J.D. Vance described his own family.

In doing genealogical research and traveling around back roads, my parents and I experienced nothing but kindness. Complete strangers went out of their way to help us, again and again and again. I’m not just talking about the staff at public libraries, genealogical centers, and county courthouses. Random people were simply nice.

While looking for an old family cemetery, we stopped to talk to people on a country road. I knocked on one rundown house and an entire family peeked out at me, but they didn’t have a snarling vicious dog nor did anyone point a gun at me. They politely answered my questions. Another guy I talked to was mowing his lawn and, after questioning him as well, he directed me to a nearby house. Once again, I knocked on a stranger’s door in this rural area and one of the nicest guys you could ever meet answered the door. He was so welcoming that he welcomed us onto another neighbor’s land by taking us to where the old family homestead was located. After that, he invited us back to his home.

When further down south in Kentucky, probably in Putnam County, we were looking for another family cemetery. It too was on private property. We drove down this lane where it opened up on someone’s yard. We parked and a guy came out to greet us. He didn’t act fearful or aggressive toward us. If anything, it was plain old Southern hospitality, more than I ever experienced when living in South Carolina. He didn’t mind us being on his property and showed us around and told us what he knew about the property.

These random people we met in rural Kentucky seemed like basic working class whites. I don’t know where they were in relation to the poverty line, but they were decent people. The guy who guided us around the neighbor’s property at one point spoke of someone as being a “good Christian”. That is different from the Midwest where, when praising someone, it is more typical to hear it said that the person is a “hard worker” or some such thing.

I must admit that I like the attitude of judging people by their moral worth, not their work status. Blaming people as lazy for being unemployed when jobs are scarce is neither fair nor compassionate. And then blaming their economic conditions for their voting patterns is plain pointless. People vote for the best option they see, but the sad state of affairs is that our political system rarely offers many good choices.

That was the one thing the Vox reporting got right, if it was only briefly acknowledged. The main person interviewed, Kathy Oller, explained her reasons:

“Oller likes the idea of universal coverage. She supported President Obama in 2008 and 2012 specifically because of his promises to expand affordable health insurance. But in 2016, she decided to vote for Trump. In part, she felt it was a bit of a toss-up. She kept describing voting as something akin to “Russian roulette” — you never really know what you’ll get with a candidate, she argued.”

That is what US elections are. They are a gamble where your life is on the line, as with “Russian roulette” (in the video, she describes it as pulling the lever on a slot machine; an election is a gamble where you don’t know whether you’re pulling a slot machine lever or a gun trigger, not until after it’s already too late). There is almost no way to rationally choose, under such conditions. It’s the attempt at blindly weighing of harms versus benefits and so deciding who is the lesser evil. It should be a wake up call for Democrats that so many Americans perceived Donald Trump as a lesser evil than Hillary Clinton.

This isn’t about poor rural white people, those who get called hillbillies, rednecks and white trash. It’s simply about ordinary people facing impossible decisions that can’t and will never lead to good results. Most people vote out of a desperate sense of hope, despite all the evidence that politicians of both major parties mostly ignore the public while doing the bidding of monied interests.

If journalists are going to attempt to explain something, then that might be a good place to start.

* * *

As for poor rural whites, specifically the Appalachian hillbillies, below are some more edifying pieces about who are these people and communities, what it all means or symbolizes, and why there is such obsessive concern by outsiders, specifically the moralizing paternalism among elites.

Appalachia this election year: So many stories, so little depth
by CD, The Homesick Appalachian

There is no neutral there: Appalachia as a mythic “Trump Country”
by Elizabeth Catte

Hillbilly Elitism: The American hillbilly isn’t suffering from a deficient culture. He’s just poor.
by Bob Hutton, Jacobin

J.D. Vance, the False Prophet of Blue America
by Sarah Jones, New Republic

Hillbilly Shuffle: Don’t Blame Appalachia For Trump
byJeff Biggers, Common Dreams

Author too removed from culture he criticizes
by Brandon Kiser, Lexington Herald-Leader

* * *

Some of my previous posts:

Presidential Candidates and Voter Demographics
Trump is not the White Savior
On Rural America: Understanding Is The Problem
WASP Elegy
On Welfare: Poverty, Unemployment, Health, Etc
American Class Bigotry
Whites Understanding Whites
Joe Bageant: On the White Underclass
On the White Trash Heap
What Is Kentucky?
Are White Appalachians A Special Case?
On Racialization of Crime and Violence
The Desperate Acting Desperately
Fearful Perceptions
Union Membership, Free Labor, and the Legacy of Slavery
Patchwork Nation: Evangelical Epicenters & Tractor Country

The Shallows of the Mainstream Mind

The mainstream mindset always seems odd to me.

There can be an issue, event, or whatever that was reported in the alternative media, was written about by independent investigative journalists, was the target of leaks and whistleblowers, was researched by academics, and was released in an official government document. But if the mainstream media didn’t recently, widely, extensively, and thoroughly report on it, those in the mainstream can act as if they don’t know about it, as if it never happened and isn’t real.

There is partly a blind faith in the mainstream media, but it goes beyond that. Even the mainstream news reporting that happened in the past quickly disappears from memory. There is no connection in the mainstream mind between what happened in the past and what happens in the present, much less between what happens in other (specifically non-Western) countries and what happens in the US.

It’s not mere ignorance, willful or passive. Many people in the mainstream are highly educated and relatively well informed, but even in what they know there is a superficiality and lack of insight. They can’t quite connect one thing to another, to do their own research and come to their own conclusions. It’s a permanent and vast state of dissociation. It’s a conspiracy of silence where the first casualty is self-awareness, where individuals silence their own critical thought, their own doubts and questions.

There is also an inability to imagine the real. Even when those in the mainstream see hard data, it never quite connects on a psychological and visceral level. It is never quite real. It remains simply info that quickly slips from the mind.

A Buffet of Stories

Here is a funny thing about major newspapers. It’s really about all MSM, but it is most apparent in newspapers where it is easy to flip around and quickly peruse numerous stories.

All of the MSM are known for having particular slants, besides the general bias of a mainstream mentality and echo chamber. Yet in any given newspaper there isn’t necessarily a consistency of views, between sections of a newspaper or even between authors in the same section. I’ve read articles that directly contradicted another article from a week before, either offering different evidence or interpretation, as if the writers don’t even read the newspapers they write for.

I found an example in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, from the same section A. I first read on page A11 the article “Why This Recovery Is So Lousy” by Phil Gramm and Michael Solon. They solely and entirely blame Obama with no mention of the previous administration or the Republican wins in 2010:

“In his capacity to implement his program, Mr. Obama stood as a colossus wth the fates on his side, the vast power of government at his disposal and no one—not Congress, the Supreme Court or the Federal Reserve—willing or able to deny his will. No resources were spared.”

(The comments section from the article, of course, makes for a more interesting read.)

Some pages back on A2, there is a less melodramatic article by Greg Ip, “Older Demographic Poses Double Whammy for Economy”. His piece is more narowly focused on a single set of data from a new research paper by Nicole Maestas, Kathleen Mullen, and David Powell. Ip describes the paper’s conclusion and implication:

“rapid retirement deprives companies of critical experience and knowledge, which undermines productivity across the entire economy. Demographics may thus be a critical factor in why the current economic expansion, which began as the first baby boomers qualified for Social Security, is the weakest on record.”

So which is the right explanation? Is it all Obama’s fault, taking the economy down single-handedly? Or should we blame the excessive number of old people selfishly retiring?

I don’t really care about scapegoating Obama or not. He is the president and obviously bears some responsibility. But there are obviously many factors involved, some unique to this period of history such as the long term consequences of a baby boom.

Anyway, the explanations themselves aren’t what interested me. It was just the oddity of two articles so close together with each seemingly oblivious to the view of the other. It amused me.

I sometimes have serious doubts that the purpose of the MSM is to inform the public. They are businesses, closer to the entertainment media than anything else, and so they need to make a profit. It’s the advertising that is the product and the stories are there to sell the product.

As such, each article tells a story, some slightly more substantial and others mere fluff. But it doesn’t matter if those stories present a consistent worldview or explain all of the available data. It’s like a buffet with many options. You take the story that fits your opinions and worldview while leaving the rest.

Meanwhile, the real money is being made by advertisers with proven records of influencing the buying habits of readers, although most readers think they are too savvy to be influenced, if they ever give it any thought. The articles are largely just distraction, not entirely unlike watching a mindless sitcom.

Political Elites Disconnected From General Public

There is an interesting article by Alex Preen on Salon.com:

Politicians think Americans are super-conservative
A survey of thousands shows candidates from both parties think the electorate is way more right-wing than it is

“According to a working paper from two political scientists who interviewed 2,000 state legislative candidates last year, politicians all think Americans are more conservative than they actually are. Unsurprisingly, Republicans think voters are way more right-wing than they actually are.”

It’s unsurprising that right-wingers are clueless about the average American. That is the nature of being a right-winger, often not even realizing one is right-wing, instead thinking one is a normal mainstream American

“Liberal politicians, meanwhile, don’t imagine that their constituents are super-liberal. A majority of them also believe that their constituents are more conservative than they actually are. Which, well, that explains your Democratic Party since the Clinton administration. They weren’t polled, but I’m pretty sure “nonpartisan” political elites in the media share the exact same misperception. (“It’s a center-right country,” we hear all the time, which it turns out is both meaningless and untrue.)”

Now, this might be surprising to many, especially those on the right. It’s far from surprising to me. The average American is way to the left of what is considered ‘liberal’ in mainstream politics and media.

“Left-liberals who actually pay attention to surveys of popular opinion on things like raising taxes on rich people and expanding Medicare instead of raising the eligibility age are frequently a bit annoyed when they watch, say, the Sunday shows, and these ideas are either dismissed as radical or simply not brought up to begin with, but all of Washington is still pretty sure that Nixon’s Silent Majority is still out there, quietly raging against the longhairs and pinkos. In fact the new Silent Majority is basically made up of a bunch of social democrats, wondering why Congress can’t do serious, sensible, bipartisan things like lock up all the bankers and redistribute their loot to the masses.”

I’m one of those left-liberals who actually pays attention to surveys of popular opinion. The one thing that surprises me is that so few people do pay attention. You’d think it would be a politician’s business to pay attention. Their whole job is theoretically to represent and yet they don’t know who they are representing.

One commenter put it well:

“Constituents? Who cares about them? MONEY votes conservative, and that’s what counts. to both parties.”

Another commenter extended that thought:

“I suspect what’s going on is that many politicians (a) feel they’re supposed to represent their constituents, (b) find they’re compelled to represent their donors and other fat cats, and (c) mitigate the cognitive dissonance by telling themselves (a) and (b) aren’t far apart, although, of course, they are.”

I makes me wonder. Can these seemingly clueless people really be that out of touch and just plain ignorant? People in politics and media tend to be people who are above average in both IQ and education. None of this polling data is a secret or difficult to find.

At least for those on the right, not knowing or pretending to not know is conveniently self-serving. The way they act and what they support implies that on some level they do know, as a commenter put it:

“Republican politicians may be in the grips of delusion about the beliefs of their constituents, but at the same time they understand the need for gerrymandering, voter suppression, and other aggressive antidemocratic uses of power, when they have it, to enforce rightwing priorities. Something isn’t quite right here.”

I care less about the politicians and media. If the public became self-aware of their own leftism, it would become more difficult for the mainstream elites to keep their ruse going.

Dominant Culture Denies Its Dominance

There is a certain kind of awareness that many, if not most, people seem to lack.

It is a social awareness dealing with the dominant culture. I suppose this type of awareness is likely a learned ability that few ever learn for it probably offers few advantages, especially on the social level. People who question the dominant culture tend to be ignored, dismissed or sometimes even punished.

The opposite of this social awareness of dominant culture isn’t simply a lack of awareness but often an active denial of awareness (although maybe a subliminal awareness of what is being denied). It’s obvious what is being denied from an outside perspective and yet if you are too far outside you might not notice the incongruency. Standing on the edge of the dominant culture, part way in and part way out, offers the perfect position for this kind of social awareness.

* * *

So, what is being denied?

The person fully within the dominant culture often defends the dominant culture by denying that it is the dominant culture. That is how dominant cultures work. The dominant culture is able to maintain its dominance by maintaining its invisibility, well invisibility to those within the dominant culture anyway.

A reality tunnel can only be taken as reality by disallowing the reality tunnel to be seen for what it is.

* * *

Here is the example that got me thinking about this today. It is a comment by Alan Lichtenstein to the Wired article ‘Why Do Some People Learn Faster?’ and the following is the relevant part of the comment:

“Intelligence is overrated.  However, hard work is underrated.”

I read all the responses to this comment (19 responses by my count). Only one person disagreed with the statement that “Intelligence is overrated” and no one disagreed with the statement that “However, hard work is underrated”.

This is relevant because Wired magazine is very much a part of American mainstream media and hence a part of American mainstream culture. These readers seem to be typical mainstream Americans and their opinions representative of the dominant culture.

In order to discern the beliefs, biases and assumptions of the dominant culture, just look at what the Mr. Lichtenstein’s statements imply. Who is overrating intelligence and underrating hard work? Certainly not Mr. Lichtenstein and the typical mainstream American who agrees with him. The comment is based on an assumption that most Americans overrate intelligence and underrate hard work, but that is obviously not true.

In fact, the very opposite of what Mr. Lichtenstein says is true, at least in America:

Intelligence is underrated. However, hard work is overrated.

America has always had a strong strain of anti-intellectualism and hard work is one of the central tenets of American culture.

If hard work was any more overrated, it would be treated like a religious belief. In some ways, it already is a religious belief. Others (such as Max Weber) have noted that American’s work ethic is rooted in Protestantism. Many have argued as well that America’s anti-intellectualism is also rooted in Protestantism or Christianity in general.

* * *

Here is the basic point that I’m making (stated as a generalized truth):

You know what the dominant culture affirms by what those in the dominant culture deny.

* * *

I’ll give two other examples, one related to the media and the other related to religion.

* * *

First, there is the conservative allegation that the mainstream media is liberal.

As a liberal who doesn’t identify fully with the mainstream, I’ve noticed that this conservative allegation typically comes from people who are in the mainstream media, who regularly watch the mainstream media, or who are generally a part of the mainstream. When I check out alternative media, it is much more rare to come across this conservative allegation or else its more common to hear the opposite allegation.

The fact that this conservative allegation has spread so widely should make one suspicious of its veracity. If the mainstream media actually were liberal, those in the mainstream media wouldn’t allege others are too liberal in order to prove their own conservative credentials.

It’s like when Republican presidential candidates attack each other as being too liberal. No objective person would take this as evidence that the Republican Party has become a liberal party. Once again, the opposite is true. The GOP has instead gone to the far right.

The liberal media allegation also demonstrates the difference between mainstream and average. The mainstream often doesn’t represent the average for dominant cultures often originate from and are enforced by a dominant elite. The mainstream media acting as gatekeepers is an example of this. Even as the mainstream media attacks the mainstream media as being too liberal, the average American is more liberal than mainstream media. So, relative to the average American, the mainstream media certainly isn’t too liberal.

The conservative allegation that the mainstream media is too liberal acts as an implied denial. It denies that the mainstream media is too conservative. Hence, it denies that the corporate ruling elite who owns and operates the mainstream media (and who influences politics more than any other demographic) is too conservative. Furthermore, it denies how liberal average Americans are by refusing to acknowledge that the mainstream media doesn’t represent average Americans. The allegation implies that the mainstream media is more liberal than the average American when in reality the complete opposite is true.

* * *

Second, religious Americans are always complaining about being victims.

This is ironic considering how much power they wield. Atheists don’t have lobbyist groups that are as wealthy and influential as the religious lobbyist groups. No admitted atheist or agnostic (or any other variety of non-Christian) has ever been president of the United States. If a candidate doesn’t regularly declare or somehow clearly demonstrate their Christian credentials, they won’t even get nominated as a candidate for either party.

Conservative Christian’s denying they have power is evidence of how much power they have.

America is the most religious nation in the West and probably the most Christian nation in the world. A large part of US policy is determined by conservative Christian beliefs: obstruction of legalizing gay marriage, constant attacks on women’s health clinics because of abortion, undermining of health care reform partly because of abortions and birth control, continued funding of abstinence only sex education, the largest prison system in the world built on a conservative Christian punishment mentality, “In God We Trust” being placed on our money at the beginning of the Cold War, our constantly attacking Muslim countries and our massive support of Israel, and on and on.

The rate of religiosity such as church membership and attendance is higher in America now than when the country was founded. Atheism may be growing, but it is still a tiny percentage of the population. The majority of Americans continue to claim to believe many standard doctrines of contemporary mainstream Christianity, including such bizarre beliefs as the story about Noah’s Ark being real (even many Christians in the first centuries of Christianity didn’t take such Old Testament stories literally).

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These examples create an odd picture of American culture.

Most Americans are liberal Christians with a strong work ethic. However, Christianity is shrinking the most among lower class whites and the most religious demographic of all is that of minorities, although the upper classes are also more religious than lower class whites (the more educated an American gets the more religious they become, thus disproving the higher education system is dominated by an anti-religious liberal elite).

So, the average and below average white American is actually less Christian and more liberal than Americans in the upper classes. Meanwhile, the white upper class complains about liberalism and secularism, and also the white upper class complains about minorities despite minorities most strongly representing the religiosity upper class whites proclaim as the moral highground.

The dominant culture continues to be dominated by upper class WASPs. This is so despite the fact that atheists and minorities are two of the fastest growing demographics. Dominant culture by its nature attempts to maintain the status quo of power, wealth and social order.

The Establishement: NPR, Obama, Corporatism, Parties

I was listening to NPR, as usual, while at work. I think it was during Diane Rehm’s show that I was listening to some guests talk about federal debt and related issues. From what I was hearing, I became so frustrated that I turned it off and nearly vowed never to listen to NPR again.

So, what annoyed me so much?

I’ve become increasingly exasperated with all mainstream media/news (NPR being as mainstream as it gets) and mainstream politics. Everything in the mainstream has been pushed so far right that it’s almost entirely disconnected from the reality of average Americans. Listening to the mainstream media, you wouldn’t even be able to guess how liberally progressive most Americans are (especially relative to most mainstream reporters, pundits and politicians) on the very issues the mainstream media ‘reports’ on. So, where is the liberal bias in the media? Since newspapers have a business section, why don’t papers still have a labor section as they had a half century ago?

My frustration with NPR, in particular, has been growing. About a month ago, I wrote about an example of NPR’s status quo bias. That example was more about a general cultural bias, although one that favored the capitalist ‘management’ paradigm. Last night’s example was more egregious.

The guests seemed to be the average type of person one expects in the mainstream. I realize that means they are, therefore, to the right of the average American, but still I was shocked by how far right they were. They didn’t seem to be right-wingers and yet they were stating far right positions as if they were centrist.

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Let me give some examples.

Here is one that that I’ve noticed again and again. On NPR (and most of the mainstream media), you will rarely hear anyone admit that social security has never and will never contribute to federal debt, although interestingly I’m finally starting to hear it more in the mainstream (years after having heard it in the alternative media).

In fact, even most Washington Democrats like Obama have (for most of the recent years of debate) been unwilling to admit this either, despite it supporting the position they claim to advocate. Obama has the bully pulpit and could push the progressive agenda of protecting the social safety net. He did recently finally admit that social security has nothing to do with the debt, but then he followed that we still need to reform social security because now is the best time to do so. Why does he, after admitting the Republicans have been lying to and deceiving the public, then throw the Republicans a bone by telling them they have an open field to attack social security? He basically promises Republicans that he won’t defend the very cornerstone of progressivism.

The rhetoric that social security has anything to do with the debt is a right-wing talking point, but importantly it has been the talking point of all mainstream media and politics. I even heard Diane Rehm, in the past, talk about this as if it were an indisputable fact. I’ve heard it so many times that I can’t remember how often I’ve heard someone in the mainstream say that if we are going to get serious about balancing the budgets then we’re going to have to talk about social security.

This far right position is the centrist position of the mainstream, even though the vast majority of Americans disagree with this position. Of the mainstream media, only certain people on MSNBC will question this right-wing talking point and call out those who state it as a fact. But the most mainstream of the mainstream media (NPR, CNN, etc) will rarely if ever follow MSNBC’s example. What is odd is that MSNBC gets labeled as far left. Really? Left of what? Almost everything, including the American public, is left of the right-leaning mainstream.

New Poll Confirms Country is Clearly Progressive
Cenk Uygur

When asked what’s the first thing they would do to balance the budget, Americans had an unmistakably clear answer — raise taxes on the rich. It came in number one by a mile, with a whopping 61 percent.

If that wasn’t progressive enough, cutting defense spending came in number two, with 20 percent.

And if all of that wasn’t clear enough, when asked about cutting Medicare, only 4 percent were in favor of it. Only 3 percent wanted to cut Social Security as a way to balance the budget.

Here is another right-wing talking point I heard last night. One guest said that the American public thinks the government is too big. Bullshit! That is fucking propaganda, corporate propaganda at that. Here is some data that shows actual views of the American public (from my post: US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism):

America: A Center-Left Nation

It is one of the most fundamental ideological divides between the left and the right: Conservatives purport to believe that government should be as small as possible and favor market‐oriented solutions to social problems; progressives, on the other hand, see government playing a more vital role in meeting basic social needs, including infrastructure, economic security, education, and health care. As the most recent National Election Study (NES) data demonstrate, clear majorities of the public recognize the importance of a well‐run and well‐funded government to their lives and to the security and prosperity of the country, and, indeed, want it to do more.

On all three of the following measures, the public has moved in a more progressive direction. The number saying the government should be doing more things increased by 9 points from the 2004 study, the number saying government has gotten bigger because the problems have gotten bigger increased by 3 points, and the number saying we need a strong government to handle today’s economic problems increased by 5 points.

Public Opinion Snapshot: The Weakness of Conservative Opposition to Health Care Reform
By Ruy Teixeira

In recent polls, more of the public opposes than favors the health care reform bills in Congress. Conservatives would have you believe that the opposition plurality in these polls is a result of public distaste for a big government takeover of our health care system. Not so. In a December CNN poll, a total of 55 percent either favored the Senate health reform bill outright (42 percent) or opposed it at this point because its approach to health care isn’t liberal enough (13 percent). Just 39 percent said they opposed the bill because its approach to health care was too liberal.

Government is Good

If we are asked about this issue in the abstract, 45% of us say we want “a smaller government providing fewer services,” and 42% say that we want “a bigger government providing more services”– a pretty even split. But then when people are asked about specific policy areas, much larger numbers of people say they support expanded government services. For example, almost three quarters of Americans say they want to see more federal involvement in ensuring access to affordable health care, providing a decent standard of living for the elderly, and making sure that food and medicines are safe. And over 60% want more government involvement in reducing poverty, ensuring clean air and water, and setting minimum educational standards for school. These are hardly the answers of a people who want drastically smaller government.

Here is my third NPR example. On last night’s show, a caller asked: Does Obama genuinely believe in the far right positions he keeps giving into or is it that he has no room to negotiate further to the left? I can’t remember if one of the guests ever gave a direct answer, but the implied answer was that it was the latter. I do recall specifically that a guest described how Obama is playing on Republican’s turf which is what implies that it isn’t Obama’s turf.

I, of course, disagree. Obama is playing on mainstream Washington turf (i.e., right-wing and corporatist) because Obama is bought by the same corporate interests as Republicans. They are all serving the same master(s). It’s not that they are mere puppets. Rather, anyone who doesn’t dance with the one who brought them won’t dance for long. If you don’t play according to corporate rules, you won’t get corporate funding nor get a cushy corporate lobbyist job when you leave office. It’s just a sad fact of life that people are easily corrupted by money, power and fame. Also, we all tend to act according to the interests of those who are similar to us. Politicians tend to be wealthy and so it’s no surprise that they tend to share the interests of the wealthy.

Obama doesn’t fight strongly against Republicans because his own position is much closer to the Republican position than is his position to that of the American public. I don’t know to what degree he agrees with Republicans, but my point is even on those issues he doesn’t necessarily strongly disagree. For God’s sake, Obama is even against gay marriage, a staunch Republican position. Are most Americans against gay marriage? No.

Gay Marriage Opponents Now in Minority

poll from CNN this week is the latest to show a majority of Americans in favor of same-sex marriage, with 51 percent saying that marriages between gay and lesbian couples “should be recognized by the law as valid” and 47 percent opposed.

This is the fourth credible poll in the past eight months to show an outright majority of Americans in favor of gay marriage. That represents quite a lot of progress for supporters of same-sex marriage. Prior to last year, there had been just one survey — a Washington Post poll conducted in April 2009 — to show support for gay marriage as the plurality position, and none had shown it with a majority.

As we noted last August, support for gay marriage seems to have been increasing at an accelerated pace over the past couple of years. Below is an update to the graph from last year’s article, which charts the trend from all available public polls on same-sex marriage going back to 1988.

On a related note, another staunch Republican position is the Tough On Crime policy of which the War On Drugs is an extension. The American people think Marijuana should be legalized, something conservatives have always seen as dangerous to society.

Marijuana Legalization: Poll Suggests Public Support Growing

Data compiled by the Pew Research Center and drawn primarily from the General Social Survey has found a consistent trend towards supporting legalization of marijuana for recreational use, but no poll so far has shown a majority in favor.

In a poll released Tuesday by CNN, 41 percent of American adults said they favored legalizing marijuana, while 56 percent opposed. Another poll, conducted early last month by the Pew Research Center, found 45 percent of adults supporting legalization and 50 percent against it.

[ . . . ] Demographic trends show that the movement to embrace legalization will likely continue: Both recent polls reveal younger respondents as the most likely supporters. In the Pew poll, the majority of 18-29 year olds (54 percent favor/42 percent oppose) and a slim plurality of 30-49 year olds (49 percent support/47 percent oppose) said marijuana use should be legal. In the new CNN poll, about as many respondents under 50 said they supported legalizing marijuana (49 percent) as opposed it (50 percent).

Who does Obama agree with, the American people or the Republicans? The Republicans, of course.

Other issues that Obama didn’t support the majority public opinion and instead ‘compromised’ with Republicans:

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There is nothing surprising about this. It’s just the type of positions that almost all politicians take these days.
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It wouldn’t be extremely different if it was a Republican as president. These positions are mainstream Washington positions, mainstream media positions, mainstream corporate positions. This ‘mainstream’, however, shouldn’t be mistaken as the average or majority position. If we had an actually functioning democracy, the mainstream would reflect the majority position and mainstream politicians would represent the majority of Americans. Instead, we have some type of plutocratic oligarchy, whether corporatocracy/soft-fascism or inverted totalitarianism.
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Obama’s positions on all these issues are the standard positions presented on NPR. But what about the views of the majority of Americans? As someone who has regularly listened to NPR for years, I can say that you will rarely hear reported any of the data I’m sharing here. It’s not a secret. The data I’m sharing even comes from mainstream sources such as Pew. There seems to be a disconnect between info known in the mainstream and the info reported in the mainstream. The most rational assumption to make is that most of the time it’s intentional when incorrect or partial information is reported or when information is entirely ignored. I’ve often wondered if all these mainstream media types are trapped in a media bubble, an echo chamber… but I don’t think that is giving them enough credit. These aren’t stupid and uneducated people.
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It does make me wonder, though. Diane Rehm seems well-intentioned. So why doesn’t she usually challenge her guests when they state misinformation? Why doesn’t she point out what the correct information is? Why does she most often just goes along with the talking points? Could it be that she genuinely is oblivious to all the type of info I’m sharing? Or does she think it’s not her job to help fairly and fully inform her listeners?
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Maybe it’s just the structure of mainstream media. NPR isn’t really all that different from corporate media. The ‘Public’ in NPR is very limited because much of their funding doesn’t come from the public, especially not the government that supposedly represents the national public.
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“As its federal funding came under threat,” U.S. National Public Radio increased its ad sales. “Public-radio stations now count 18% of their revenue from businesses, compared with 11% from the federal government.” Corporate “underwriters” include Clear Channel CommunicationsStarbucks andWal-Mart Stores. “More on-air sponsorships are now weaved into programming breaks rather than lumped at the end of each show,” reports Sarah McBride. “And more minutes per hour are given over to these announcements, a sweetener for all concerned because such underwriting is tax-deductible.” The trend was informed by a 2004 report for 21 large public-radio stations, which found listeners disliked on-air pledge drives, but “weren’t bothered by” fundraising by direct mail or on-air underwriting. NPR ombudsman Jeffery Dvorkin admits that listener concerns “about corporate influence on programming as well as the number of messages” are increasing. [6]

Sponsors include:

In 2005 they received $3 million from the Ford Foundation.

Sarah McBride

As much of the media industry languishes in an advertising slump, public radio is on a tear, scooping up new sponsorship by mimicking the tactics of commercial broadcasters. On offer is public radio’s coveted, gold-plated audience.

But the increase in corporate messages is a delicate marketing strategy, since many of those prized listeners gravitated to public stations looking for the exact opposite: an escape from advertising’s constant hum.

These stories mention single payer. I can find no NPR news reports or other shows which actually focused on single payer or on the movement to achieve it.

Why is NPR refusing to report on what 60% of US citizens and the majority of health professionals want?

NPR’s web site provides lists of foundation and individual major donors but not of corporate sponsors. For that list you need to go to their annual reports. The latest report available on line is for 2005. Health and Long-term Care corporate sponsors in 2005 were:

  • $1 million+: Farmers Insurance Group of Companies, Prudential Financial
  • $500,000 – $999,999: Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America, Allstate Insurance Company, Northwestern Mutual Foundation,
  • $250,000 – $499,999: AARP, The Hartford Financial Services Group, UnumProvident
  • $100,000 – $249,999: Liberty Mutual Insurance Company
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I think part of the mess we find ourselves in can be explained by the party system.
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George Washington explained in detail what he saw as the danger of political parties:

They [political parties] serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels, and modified by mutual interests.

“However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government; destroying afterwards the very engines, which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

Like Paine, a danger he saw was that a country could develop divided loyalties and the people would no longer see themselves united in a common cause. This would lead to a weakening of liberty because it would spread mistrust and antagonism. One division he foresaw was geographical where parties would prey upon people’s prejudices and xenophobia. Another division had to do with foreign influences.
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In Washington’s time, this made particular sense as a large part of the population had been born in another country or had close relatives still living in another country. A dangerous possibility was of a citizen who had loyalty divided between two nations. This still can be a danger today, but it’s an even bigger issue with globalization. Businesses (as well as business owners and investors) have less national allegiance once they become transnational corporations which are the very businesses that now have the most influence over our politics.
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The parties have become perfect vehicles for corporate interests. This is particularly problematic considering that mainstream media companies have been bought up by conglomerates that often are transnational. So the parties and the media, NPR included, that reports on them is increasingly influenced by the same global plutocracy.
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Anyway, my frustration is that this entire corrupt system gets blamed on liberals.
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NPR liberal? Obama progressive? In what alternative reality?