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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

White guilt is a distraction in the fight against racism

Stephen H. Provost

White guilt is a better look than racism ... but that’s not saying much.

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing by white people about privilege the past few years, and the more I see of it, the less I think it does any good. Hand-wringing in general isn’t the best way to get things done, for one thing.

So, it’s not surprising that all the guilt and self-flagellation over racism isn’t accomplishing much. If anything, the battle for equality has taken a few steps backward since it’s become fashionable among whites to bemoan white privilege. Take a look at who occupies the White House, at Charlottesville, and at racists emboldened by the president’s ambivalence become more vocal/active.

None of these racists are people who would have been the least bit guilted by talk of white privilege. They’re people who were just waiting for an opportunity to come out of the woodwork and promptly declare that they were all for it. Hand-wringing doesn't do anything to keep them from spreading their hatred.

Why are privileged whites spending so much energy guilting other privileged whites – energy that could be spent fighting against police brutality, discriminatory prison sentences, unequal pay and other very real, very damaging consequences of racism? And why do they seem to be wallowing in their own guilt?

Guilt is a human response designed for one thing only: to alert us that something needs to be fixed. That we need to do something differently. The Civil Rights movement alerted us that we needed to fix our warped ideas about race back in the 1960s, and occasionally, we need reminding of that, now especially. But hearing a reminder is different than wallowing in guilt, because wallowing is the exact opposite of what guilt is supposed to promote: action.

The real problem with white guilt over white privilege is it puts the focus ... on white people. Sounds pretty egotistical to me. Shouldn’t the focus be on the people who are getting beaten up by police or bypassed for jobs? Shouldn’t we be trying to empathize with them, rather than becoming so wrapped up in our own “awareness” that we forget to be aware of the actual problem? The actual problem is not white privilege. It’s racism.

Mesmerized by the mirror

The problem isn’t that white people have it too good; it’s that people of color aren’t given the same opportunity to reach those heights. All this talk about white privilege might even be a form of racism in itself – because it keeps the spotlight on white people. It’s a lot easier to say you’re “looking at yourself” than it is to look at the results of poverty, poor health care and discrimination. Instead of looking in the mirror, we should look at what’s happening in the communities affected by racism. That’s where the problem is.

That’s where we must focus our attention.

I know if I have a problem, I’m a lot more interested in getting it solved than hearing someone express regret. If someone served you a dish that gave me food poisoning, how would you feel if he spent the next 20 minutes bemoaning what a terrible cook he was rather than giving you a ride to the doctor?

Awareness is a good thing. So is self-awareness. But any protracted infatuation with white guilt on the part of white people is self-centered and distracts from the real issue: People are being treated unfairly, and they’re suffering for it.

Want to help someone with food poisoning? Take her to the doctor. Want to end racism? Improve the lives of those affected.

Don’t waste time gazing mournfully at your own reflection.

Political fundamentalism: Our true constitutional crisis

Stephen H. Provost

“Your right to use your fist ends at the tip of my nose.”

My father, an esteemed professor of political science, taught me that one. The idea is that rights – even the most fundamental ones – aren’t absolute.

Yes, I have the right to bear arms, but I can have that right rescinded if I’m sent to prison. I have the right to free speech, but that right doesn’t permit me to incite a riot. I have the right to practice my religion, but not to forcibly convert people or launch a jihad.

The limits on our rights should be obvious, but they seem to be growing less and less so. As politics become more polarized and positions become more hardened, more people are viewing issues in absolute terms.

This has long been a hallmark of religious fundamentalism, which views compromise as a dirty word and sees “situational ethics” as a tool of the devil to tempt the righteous. But of late, political partisanship has started to look more and more like a religious cult.

Identity, not issues

Donald Trump has tapped into this by casting himself as a pseudo-messiah who alone can fix it – whatever “it” is, and even if “it” doesn’t need to be fixed. But the problem extends far beyond Trump’s opportunism. It’s a rigidity of belief, a dogmatic loyalty that transcends issues and defines the true believer’s identity.

It’s not just Republicans; it exists on the Democratic side, too. Witness the anger among party regulars when Bernie Sanders, a (gasp) independent, dared to challenge loyal partisan Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination.

My point isn’t to rehash the 2016 primary or general election. That’s been done to death, resurrected and keeps walking around like a zombie with a score to settle. It’s to illustrate that both sides have become more concerned with identity than with content. That’s why Trump can act in ways that seem antithetical to Republican ideals (Russia, tariffs, personal character) with impunity. Think about it: Trump himself has, at best, a passing acquaintance with what’s in the Bible, but he can refer to the Bible as a mark of identity, and Christians will stand up and cheer.

It's also why Trump’s status gets all the attention, and things like health care, education and crime barely register on the national news. Events like the Flint water crisis, the tragedy in Puerto Rico and the Las Vegas shooting (remember that?) break into the headlines temporarily, only to quickly disappear and be forgotten. They’ve had their 15 minutes of fame. The woman dying in a hospital because she can’t afford a prescription and the homeless guy who couldn’t repay his student loan don’t even get 15 seconds.

We care about identity, not issues. About labels, not people.

This isn’t just a result of tribalism (although it certainly is that), it’s fundamentalism, the engine that drove the Russian Revolution, the rise of Mao Zedong and, yes, Hitler’s ascension. On the surface, fundamentalism seems to be about strict adherence to dogma. But it’s really about magnifying personal power through the lens of identity, usually provided by labels or charismatic leaders. If those labels or leaders are challenged, principle will be sacrificed in a heartbeat to protect them.

People have asked me why I dislike identity politics (which is, incidentally, practiced by both sides). There’s your answer.

Objectifying our principles

As positions are hardened and battle lines are drawn, the Constitution begins to function the way the Bible does in the world of Trump. It becomes less a source of guiding principle and more an object to be defended. Its contents and meaning become less relevant; all that matters is the identity it conveys on true believers.

They see the Second Amendment as an absolute right not only to bear, but to brandish and even to use firearms, including the most lethal. Especially if they’re the ones holding the guns.

They believe the First Amendment protects even speech that incites others to violence or curtails their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As long as they’re not on the receiving end of it.

They invoke it to defend the practice of religion – even when that practice involves discrimination, bigotry or passing restrictive laws based against “outsiders.” As long as their the ones making those laws.

This us-versus-them view of the world is the root of the problem. “We” are always right, good and superior. “They” are always wrong, evil and inferior. Such fundamentalist paranoia about “the world” and “heretics” and “unbelievers” has infected party politics to a degree not seen since the Southern white establishment’s resistance to the civil rights movement. It’s reflected in the attitude of many toward immigrants, regardless of legal status, and toward people belonging to the opposite party.

It has been, of course, the justification for slavery, pillage, murder and genocide.

Strict manipulation

Such attitudes are buttressed by the concept of “strict constitutionalism” – of applying the Constitution “the way the framers intended.” This sounds noble on the face of it. But not only is it problematic, it’s ludicrous and, in the end, dishonest.

It’s problematic because we can’t get inside the framers’ heads to determine exactly what they intended. We can consult their writings, but guess what? The framers didn’t all agree on everything. They reached compromises. In fact, based on their actions, that may be clearest conclusion we can draw about their intent: that they agreed on the value of compromise – quite inconvenient in the current political climate, where compromise is viewed as weak or downright evil.

(This aversion to compromise is, not surprisingly, another hallmark of religious fundamentalism. You don’t compromise with outsiders, unbelievers and heretics. You don’t give the devil a foothold. In American politics, you don’t call him the devil. That’s something Ayatollahs do. Instead you label him – or her – according to his or her political party or race or sexual orientation. You say he’s a communist or a Nazi. Or you call him names like “liddle” and “crazy” and “sneaky” and “crooked.”)

Now, where were we? Oh, yes ...

Applying the Constitution as the framers intended is ludicrous because they intended it for the world they lived in. Not ours. They set forth a series guiding principles were meant to be universal, or nearly so, not a hard-and-fast code of conduct.

They weren’t intended to be applied the same way every time; broad principles never are. Sometimes, “love thy neighbor” means to give of one’s self out of compassion; other times, it means practicing tough love. It all depends on the circumstances, and circumstances have changed dramatically since the framers’ era. They lived in a world of newsletters, bayonets and horse-drawn carriages, not social media, assault weapons and Teslas. They couldn’t have envisioned our world, and they didn’t try to. They counted on us to follow the principles they set down, not try to replicate how they would have interpreted them.

So, it’s ultimately dishonest to try to get inside the framers’ heads and apply things the same way they might have. It’s like trying to get inside the head of God – which is what religious fundamentalists do all the time. And guess what? The dictates of such a “God” nearly always wind up echoing their own biases and furthering their own agendas. In the same way, strict constitutionalists tend to substitute their own biases and agendas for what they imagine the framers might have intended. This isn’t strict constructionism.

It’s reconstructionism and, strictly speaking, a power grab.

The upshot

These days, many Americans no longer think twice about sacrificing principle in achieving their goals, whether those principles are contained Bible, Constitution or somewhere else. To them, identity is more important. “Winning” is more important.

Welcome to the Machiavellian States of America.

Neither Islam nor Christianity is the true threat to our republic. The real danger lies in the fundamentalist approach to both that has spread to our politics.

If we really believe in the Constitution, we have to stop “defending” it and start abiding by the principles it sets forth. If we don’t, we’ll be spitting in the face of the framers we pretend to revere and exchanging their vision for the very thing they fought to be free of: tyranny

We’ve started down a road that leads us to a place where we won’t recognize ourselves ten years from now. We won’t recognize our country. And worse still, a good many of us may actually like it.

Media coverage of Trump is heavily biased ... in his favor

Stephen H. Provost

Thinking out loud ... or at my keyboard.

Postulated: Modern mainstream journalism is heavily biased in favor of Donald Trump, at least when it comes to the Mueller investigation. You read that right. The same journalists Trump accuses of being out to get him, the ones he calls purveyors of “fake news” and “the enemy of the people,” are biased in his favor.

Balance beam

Journalists are funny creatures. I know. I used to be one. They obsess about being “fair and balanced” (a phrase that long predates its appropriation by Fox News as an Orwellian battle cry). They’ve been known to give equal time, or at least a mention, to such folks as anti-Obama “birthers” and climate change deniers.

These claims may be no more factual than those of flat-earthers and Holocaust deniers, but they’re given a voice because enough of them are shouting loudly enough to demand it. Not for the sake of facts, but for the sake of “balance.”

If enough people believe something false, does that alone make it worthy of coverage? Some in the media seem to think so. But it’s hard to cover a belief without lending it a degree of legitimacy, and that’s what journalists do when they repeat false claims. They’re worried that if they don’t, they might be accused of favoritism – especially when it comes to politics – so, they let virtually anyone with a loud enough voice have a platform.

That generally means people with R’s and D’s after their names. Independent voters are too, well, independent to offer any unified message, and third parties are too small.

Truth or consequences

All other things being equal (or close to it), the level of interest in a story should be a factor in whether it sees the light of day. When it becomes the overriding factor, however, there’s a problem. The Founding Fathers understood this when they devised a system founded on a statement of fundamental principles: the U.S. Constitution. Under this system, any movement that opposed those principles was deemed unlawful – regardless of how popular it was.

Similarly, the journalist’s unwritten constitution should put the truth ahead of popularity. Period. No matter how great the sacrifice in terms of ratings or subscriptions or advertising dollars.

When journalists decide popularity is more important than truth in deciding whether to report a story, they abandon their traditional role as gatekeeper. They throw open those invisible gates they’re supposed to be guarding to anyone and everyone, including marauders who want to destroy or plunder or conquer.

The result is chaos, and it’s hard to put the genie back into the bottle.

Journalists are gatekeepers whether they like it or not. They have limited resources - space on their news pages, time on their newscasts, staff to report the news - so they must pick and choose what they cover. Some things will get covered and others won't. Journalists are the ones who decide; they're responsible.

When they abdicate this responsibility, giving con artists and conspiracy theorists a platform, they may try to debunk them – thereby compromising their own integrity. Suddenly, they’re not just reporting a story, they’re commenting on it. Are Anderson Cooper or Sean Hannity reporters or advocates ... or entertainers? Even Hannity doesn’t seem to know: He’s argued at various times that he is and is not a journalist. If he doesn’t know the difference, how are viewers supposed to?

And how are journalists supposed to retain credibility when they seem more like attack dogs than reporters? In the eyes of viewers, they’ve sacrificed the very “balance” they sought to achieve in the first place.

More important, though, is that it’s a lot harder to confront marauding hordes inside the city gates than beyond them. The only negotiations likely to take place at that point will involve the terms of your surrender.

Actions, not words

Before I go further, I should point out a key distinction: Sometimes, the actions of people purveying falsehoods are worthy of coverage, even though their ideas aren’t. When 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed mass suicide in an attempt to somehow rendezvous with an imaginary spaceship, the tragedy was newsworthy. The spaceship wasn’t. These people believed so strongly in its existence that they were willing to die for it, but no one suggested that this viewpoint deserved to be considered as a rational possibility for the sake of “balanced coverage.”

Yet somehow, when politics become involved, all that changes. Modern politics transforms many in the media from champions of truth into scared puppies cowering under the table.

They tend to believe they must give the ideas of both sides relatively equal weight, even when one side is arguing for beliefs that have been disproved by science, rewrite history or fly in the face of the most basic common sense.

One-sided story

It’s bad enough if one side is telling the truth on a given issue, while the other side is lying. (In politics, neither side tells the truth all or even most of the time). But what if one side is making a series of false statements, and the other side isn’t saying anything at all?

This is exactly what’s happening in the Mueller investigation. Donald Trump and his legal team/PR machine are spewing out daily tweets, legal claims and proclamations, many of which are at odds with established facts and with one another. Sometimes, both.

Mainstream news outlets aren’t just covering them, they’re falling all over themselves to do so. They trot out a parade of “breaking news” items, significant and otherwise. Then, when there’s a lull, they call in any number of talking heads who proceed to analyze this stuff to death, exhume its remains and dissect it until there’s nothing left but dust and bones.

All the while, they’re referring back to the Trump team’s version of events, time and again. No matter how fanciful or self-contradictory that version may be, it will start to take hold if it’s repeated often enough. And it appears to have done just that: In July, 45 percent of those surveyed in a Washington Post poll disapproved of the way Mueller was handling the investigation, up from 31 percent at the start of the year.

This, in spite of the fact that, apart from several indictments, no one really knows what Mueller is doing. They only know what the Trump team tells them: that the inquiry is a “witch hunt” being conducted by a bunch of “angry Democrats” and that it’s “bad for the country.” All of this is either badly exaggerated or patently false. Even so, it’s dutifully reported in painstaking detail by Trump’s mouthpiece: the mainstream media he professes to hate.

Mueller, meanwhile, remains silent because that’s what a good prosecutor does.

Unhinged and unbalanced

The result is far worse even than what happens when media outlets give equal coverage to two sides – one factual and the other not. In this case, not only are journalists reporting falsehoods and dubious statements from a biased source, those statements are the only things they’re reporting. Because that source is the only one they’ve got. Trump’s team is the only side with direct involvement that’s providing any information, so their message, naturally, carries the day.

The media “solution” to this only makes matters worse. Cable news networks trot out talking heads to act as surrogates for what Mueller might be doing or considering. But it’s all just speculation, and speculation is no substitute for facts. Viewers know this and treat it as such.

When commentators try to balance the scales by casting themselves in adversarial roles, it’s even worse. It only fuels Trump’s narrative that the media are biased against him, even though almost all the news of substance they’re reporting originates in his own camp! He’s having his cake and eating it, too, all the while giving journalists heartburn.

How to restore balance

This leads me to the blunt conclusion journalists don’t want to face, and the thesis of this column: In order to achieve actual balance in this case, the media would have to stop reporting the Trump team’s side.

Should they, really? The news media are supposed to report the news, not withhold it. But if they’re so dedicated to achieving “balance” that they repeat phony claims such as birtherism and climate change denial, shouldn’t they refrain from covering one side when the other side doesn’t have a voice?

Especially when the side that’s talking has a history of contradictory, false and self-serving statements. And especially when national security is at stake. Let’s not forget the gravity of the accusations being made: that people close to or involved in the Trump campaign were complicit with wealthy, politically motivated Russians in helping to influence the outcome of a national election.

Our election, not theirs. Not an election to be decided at the pleasure of Vladimir Putin, who has openly admitted he wanted Trump to win. If he’d wanted Hillary Clinton to win, the episode would have been just as repugnant. No more, no less. Putin’s actions are an insult and an act of violence against the heart of a democratic republic, against the Constitution, against the nation and against each of us as U.S. citizens.

Journalists’ responsibility

Journalists must take their role as gatekeeper seriously if they are to avoid being suckered into becoming a propaganda mouthpiece for Donald J. Trump. That’s where they’re headed, if they aren’t already there.

But as much as many in the media may loathe Trump personally, there’s a reason they won’t pull themselves back from the brink. They might tell you it has to do with journalistic ethics or integrity, but there’s something else in play here: ratings, subscriptions and revenues.

Bottom line: Trump’s story sells newspapers and lifts ratings, which, in turn, woos advertisers. This is ultimately why mainstream media outlets will go right on telling it. Right on serving as his mouthpiece. Because to them, popularity really is more important than truth.

Popularity equals ratings equals profit. Trump and the media both know this. They’re on the same page, so is it really any surprise that media companies do Trump’s bidding? When it comes right down to it, it’s all about the Benjamins.

Stephen H. Provost is an author, former journalist, historian and media critic. His book Media Meltdown in the Age of Trump examines the toxic relationship between journalism and Donald Trump, focusing on the media’s transformation from impartial observer to ringside commentator and sometimes-combatant in the 21st century culture wars.