Barry's Blog # 244-247: False Equivalencies, Parts 1-4 of 8

Part One

In January 2013, Chuck Todd, chief White House correspondent for NBC, addressed a conference of professional vote-counters. His audience included sales reps for voting machine and software companies, as well as several state secretaries of state. Todd ridiculed critics of electronic election machines, saying that they must be paranoid to think that anyone would deliberately alter election results. Earlier that week he had tweeted: “The voting machine conspiracies belong in the same category as the Trump birther garbage.”

(It was a time of innocence, you might say, long before 2018, when almost all of the corporate media, including Todd himself, would regularly make allegations about Trump colluding with “the Russians” to “hack” election machines in 2016.)

 Just a few days later, throughout February of that year, readers of daily newspapers saw a series of very funny “Doonesbury” comic strips in which a consultant named Austin who works for “MyFacts” furnishes spurious “facts” on demand. In this panel he makes fun of right-wing conspiracies:

 

In the interest of fairness, perhaps, a later panel attacked “conspirators” on the left:

Austin:            This is MyFacts, Austin speaking.

Caller:             My phone is tapped.  So I can’t tell you my name.  But I’m looking for fresh evidence  that 9/11 was a government conspiracy.

Austin:            I’m sorry sir, but I’m showing our truther line has been discontinued.  Can I interest  you in another elaborate hoax?

Caller:             Who paid you off?  It was Cheney, wasn’t it?  Just nod.

Austin:            How about Bin Laden.  We carry irrefutable proof he’s still alive.

This was a type of humor that Doonesbury has excelled in for years, making fun of “everybody,” especially the most earnest among us. In 2009 one of his panels featured his liberal talk-show host Mark Slackmeyer interviewing a college professor:

Professor:      It’s quite remarkable, Mark…Americans believe in many things that can’t be verified. For instance, almost half of us believe in ghosts and 40% in alien                          abductions. And that availability to alternative reality is reflected in conspiracy                      theory. From truthism, which holds that Bush was behind 9/11, to Birthism. And, of            course, we still have many legacy fringe groups like JFK grassy knollers, the staged                moon landingists, etc.

Slackmeyer:   Professor, is there any counter to these powerful theorists?

Professor:      Not really, Mark. Only the reasonists.

Slackmeyer:   Reasonists?

Professor:      They believe in an evidence-based world, something called rationalism. But it’s a tiny group, not so influential.

What’s going on here? By including very widely held left-wing political opinions in the same category as these right-wing ideas, Doonesbury was defining them all as conspiracy theories. He was doing exactly the same thing (granted, with more humor) from a liberal perspective that Todd was doing as a corporate spokesperson disguised as a “commentator.”

This is the narrative of false equivalency, which instructs Americans that any notions differing from mainstream understandings of reality – no matter how popular – are equally worthless. Here’s the logic:

We define A as silly.

Silly is unacceptable.

We mention B next to A.

Therefore, B is silly and unacceptable.

Here’s another one:

Racism was once the law of the land.

Racism is now illegal.

Legally, whites and blacks have equal access to jobs and housing.

Therefore, there is no longer any need for anti-discrimination policies.

This kind of FE (I’ll be using the abbreviation throughout this essay) is often told by those people who were, as the saying goes, “born on third base, and think they had hit a triple.”

FEs tell us more about the subject (who is making the FE) than about the object (whom they are making it about). When FEs are told honestly and innocently (as opposed to, say, by a well-paid FOX News hack), they often imply a certain cognitive dissonance:

A – Trump is bad.

B – We dislike Trump.

C – Therefore, we are good, and we feel good about ourselves.

D – John McCain was a warmonger who voted with Trump 83% of the time.

E – But McCain disliked Trump.

F – Therefore, McCain was good. He was a “maverick.”

G – To convince ourselves of F, we must ignore D. (This is cognitive dissonance.)

H – Since McCain was good, he was like us.

I – Therefore, we feel even better about ourselves.

This is one way in which we perpetuate the myth of American Innocence.

There are countless websites and books devoted to narratives that marginalize those who question the dominant paradigms of the culture. They typically do this by offering lists of “loony” theories from the perspective of the “rational center.” In almost every case, such gatekeepers lump all of the questioners together. Then with patronizing, pseudo-psychology, they explore the unconscious motivations of conspiracy theorists, be they fascists or anarchists, Christians or Pagans, oligarchs or street people.

Such styles are well within one of two very old American traditions of gatekeeping, the purpose of which is to shore up the cracks in the myth of American innocence. One is to lie outright about American history. Here’s the logic:

A is a story that makes us feel good about ourselves. It reminds us of who we are.

There is no other story, no B.

Since A is the only story, we are justified in knowing who we are and feeling good     about ourselves.

It is the gatekeepers – religious, media and academic, who decide which stories we hear. As I wrote in a previous blog,

The “Dunning School” of racist historians dominated the writing of post-Civil War history well into the 1950s. William Dunning, founder of the American Historical Association, taught Columbia students that blacks were incapable of self-government. Yale’s Ulrich Phillips defended slaveholders and claimed they did much to civilize the slaves. Henry Commager and (Harvard’s) Samuel Morison’s The Growth of the American Republic, read by generations of college freshmen, perpetuated the myth of the plantation and claimed that slaves “suffered less than any other class in the South…The majority…were apparently happy.” Daniel Boorstin’s The Americans: The Colonial Experience doesn’t mention slavery at all. Similarly, Arthur Schlesinger’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Jacksonnever mentions the Trail of Tears.

The process of initiation into higher education (and the careers it opens one to) nearly guarantees that those admitted within the pale are already thinking within very narrow boundaries. This is clearly true for journalists as well. Noam Chomsky has said that this is “a system of imposed ignorance” in which the most highly educated people are the most highly indoctrinated:

A good education instills in you the intuitive comprehension – it becomes unconscious and reflexive – that you just don’t think certain things…that are threatening to power interests.

Over the years, polls clearly indicate the results: the higher one’s education, the more one is likely to unquestioningly support America’s wars of aggression – and the reverse is also true. Despite the public stereotypes of rebellious students during the Viet Nam years, for example, it turns out that resistance to the draft varied inversely with income and educational levels.

The other tradition is to ridicule any political positions further out on the spectrum (left or right) often enough so as to deprive them of legitimacy and, by contrast, manufacture the legitimacy of the “center.” Here’s the logic:

A is too far out in one direction. It may be admirable, but it’s unrealistic or impractical.

B, similarly, is too far in the other direction – even if it is not admirable.

C lies in between them.

A and B should negotiate until they compromise at C.

Therefore, C is legitimate, practical, realistic and workable.

This, most politicians and activists tell us, is how things get done in the real world. Especially since the upheavals of the 1960s, countless books have extolled the innate wisdom of the great middle and the need for idealists to find common ground with their adversaries. It’s often very good advice.

But I’m not talking about people who see some good in each side of a debate, who play by the same rules and have comparable, idealistic visions of the common good. I’m talking about those spokespersons for that same corporate-consumerist, business-as-usual, consensual reality of American empire that the 60s called into question. I’m talking about people whose jobs depend on their knowing very well that allowing actual alternative thinking (socialist; anarchist; anti-imperialist; environmentalist; anti-consumerist; anti-policing; advocates for racial, healthcare, prison, gender, immigration and drug justice, etc.) into the public discourse and airwaves would threaten both that consensus and their own jobs. I’m talking about people who want us to forget about radical change because – they tell us – some of its adherents and some of their proposals are as laughably, preposterously unacceptable as are those on the other extreme.

Part Two

In the old days, reasonable, middle-class people heard the stories that tell us who we are by reading the reasonable, well-written giants of the press: the NYT, the WAPO, the New Yorker, the NYRB, etc, and from the major news broadcasters. The really intelligent people, of course, got their news and opinions from the smooth, reassuring voices of NPR. Now, social media are rapidly taking their places. But they are all functioning as gatekeepers to the commonly agreed upon sense of acceptable discourse. 

The use of the term “conspiracy theory” is one of the main ways in which they banish any legitimate criticism of those in power to the realm of the truly illegitimate. The intent is insidious, even if often sincere. The only position that reasonable people could hold is the only one that remains, C – the consensual center that ranges between “not as crazy as A” to “not as crazy as B.” When they hear it often enough, people hold to that center so as to reaffirm their sense of American Innocence.

Anyone can be a gatekeeper. All it takes is a public role, some media credibility and a willingness to marginalize an opinion to the left of your own by equating its “unreasonableness” with that of something truly loony to the right of you. Oddly enough, the fact that so many journalists and commentators have taken on this role is, I think, one of the major reasons why so many of us distrust the media. Trump, for his own reasons, is onto something here. Although he never was and never will be an authentic critic of centrist assumptions, he can read his angry white constituents well.

Here, Noam Chomsky discusses what actually makes mainstream media “mainstream.”

There are all sorts of filtering devices to get rid of people who are a pain in the neck and think independently…the educational system is very highly geared to rewarding conformity and obedience…which ends up with people who really honestly (they aren’t lying) internalize the framework of belief and attitudes of the surrounding power system in the society. The elite institutions like, say, Harvard and Princeton and the small upscale colleges, for example, are very much geared to socialization. If you go through a place like Harvard, most of what goes on there is teaching manners; how to behave like a member of the upper classes, how to think the right thoughts, and so on…you learn that there are certain things it’s not proper to say and there are certain thoughts that are not proper to have. That is the socialization role of elite institutions and if you don’t adapt to that, you’re usually out.

When you critique the media and you say, look, here is what Anthony Lewis or somebody else is writing, they get very angry. They say, quite correctly, “nobody ever tells me what to write. I write anything I like. All this business about pressures and constraints is nonsense because I’m never under any pressure.” Which is completely true, but the point is that they wouldn’t be there unless they had already demonstrated that nobody has to tell them what to write because they are going say the right thing…

Centrists and liberals are not the only ones to use the phrase to de-legitimize ideas further out on the spectrum than they are comfortable with. Many progressives, for example, are disappointed with Chomsky himself, both for ridiculing the 9/11 Truth movement as well as for not questioning the “single gunman” narrative of the Kennedy assassination.

Offering FEs is not by any means the same as actually arguing against more progressive opinions than your own. Those who do this depend upon laziness and lack of critical thinking – and I’m not talking about the “under-educated” (who, as I mentioned in Part One, have always been more anti-war than middle-class people) but those who actually consider themselves well-informed by the major gatekeepers.

But when the majority of Americans actually do hold opinions on most issues, domestic and international, that are considerably to the left of both major parties – as has been the case for at least forty years – and when liberal politicians know full well both the weakness of their arguments against real progressives as well as the sources of their financial support – it is tempting to fall back on FE’s.

Certainly, most well-known journalists sincerely believe in the truth and value of the moderate, reasonable center. As Chomsky said, they wouldn’t have risen to their current positions if they didn’t. But with some, I’m just not sure. Something tells me that if Bill O’Reilly were offered enough money from some mythical progressive TV network, he’d suddenly become a raving leftist.

Raving – that’s our working modifier for those outside the pale.

We have to remain aware of the mythic implications here: Apollo is the god of fine arts, beauty, truth and dry, reasonable, cerebral discourse. By contrast, Dionysus, the archetypal “Other,” is ecstatic, raving, physical, wet, irrational, emotional and unreasonable.

Dionysus is the shadow of American innocence. For 400 years, the white American psyche has repressed its Dionysian nature and projected it onto the scapegoated Others of our history. Gatekeepers know this. They know that if they can tar radicals with the Dionysian label, the middle class, terrified of the implications, will follow along.

To deliberately equate, for example, 9-11 skeptics (by calling them “truthers”) or those who question the Warren Report narrative of the Kennedy assassination with outright racists and paranoids who label Barack Obama as a Muslim, Kenya-born, socialist or cruelly claim that survivors of school shootings are “crisis actors” is not simply to delegitimize both; it is to imply that both are equally irrational and (in mythic terms) Dionysian. “We,” by contrast, are safely, acceptably Apollonian. Here’s the logic:

We laugh at the right-wing paranoids.

We repeatedly hear of left-wing criticisms in the same sentences as the paranoids.

We begin to laugh at the left-wing criticisms.

We feel better about ourselves.

BTW, as I write this (late August, 2018), I note that an Infowars host is suggesting that the hurricane bearing down upon Hawaii has been split in two by an energy beam shot from Antarctica, possibly by Jo... So what are we expected to think – what do the gatekeepers want us to think – when they mention professional (and extremely well-funded) lunacy like this in the same sentence as parents who point out that 97% of the population of western Europe drinks non-fluoridated water, and perhaps Americans might want to think about the issue?

As the myth of American Innocence continues to lose potency, we will see more and more of these attacks upon actual alternative perspectives.

This is the process of identity-formation in our demythologized world. We know who we are as Americans because we “know” that we are not the Other. I prefer to imagine that in other times and places people knew who they were because they had endured the process of initiation. They had made the difficult, even terrifying transition from innocence to experience. And because of this, they were nobles. This is why the mythology of kingshipretains its power, and why modern culture has reduced it to celebrity worship.

 The word “noble” comes from the same root as gnosis, or knowledge. A noble is someone who knows who he or she is, not who he or she isn’t, that as the Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi said, There are no others.

Part Three

Gatekeepers, whether academics or media puppets, delight in the power to subtly determine boundaries, to let everyone know exactly who is “beyond the pale.” The word “pale” refers to the pointed wooden poles that once were used in fortifications. Think “Fort Apache.” Anyone who threatened the innocent community within the pale risked being impaled on the sharp stakes of irrefutable “argument,” or worse.

Gatekeepers know what is expected of them, and they know each other very well. Here’s one of them (New York Times book reviewer Jacob Heilbrunn) praising another one, Jonathan Kay in 2011:

Inside the World of Conspiracy Theorists – “Among the Truthers” is a remarkable book, not least because its author, Jonathan Kay, appears to have emerged with his sanity intact after immersing himself for several years in the wilder precincts of conspiracy theories…Some of Kay’s most illuminating passages center not on what conspiracy theorists believe — even to dignify it with the word “theory” is probably to grant them more legitimacy than they deserve — but on why they are attracted to such tedious rubbish in the first place. He divides them into different camps, including the “cranks” and the “firebrands.” Cranks are often reacting to male midlife crises — combating conspiracies, Kay says, offers a new sense of mission. Cranks, he adds, are frequently math teachers, computer scientists or investigative journalists…As Kay sees it, the Enlightenment is itself at stake. His verdict could hardly be more categorical: “It is the mark of an intellectually pathologized society that intellectuals and politicians will reject their opponents’ realities.”

Notice how a NYT book reviewer (one of the very top levels of gatekeepers) subtly allowed his subject to do two things. First, to psychologize people, to reduce them to pitiful jokes, easily definable types acting out their midlife crises. And second, to include “investigative journalists” among the “cranks” – years before Trump would describe the Times itself as “failing” because it was so fake. And Kay’s last statement, of course, could not be a more precise description of the gatekeeping process itself. To accuse others of doing what one himself is in fact doing is a perfect example of the psychological process of projection. To do my own psychologizing, one might well wonder about the hidden motives of someone (and his editors) who would so blatantly indict himself.

But the best of the gatekeepers – imagine the vetting process one must go through to reach the level of NYT book reviewer – are not that dumb. They do this, I’m sure, quite deliberately. Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels allegedly said, “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth” (or at least enough writers have repeated that charge for me to assume its veracity). James Tracy, a professor and journalist who himself has been tarred with the “conspiracy theorist” label, writes:

The now-prevalent phenomenon where only the narratives authorized by law enforcement and government authorities are worthy of serious consideration suggests the unmistakable extent to which public discourse has declined…journalists and academics are expected to either fall silent or perform the rearguard action of deflecting criticism from the state…Today’s project of policing the public sphere for unorthodox thoughts is a form of stealth authoritarianism that combines the weight of academic or journalistic expertise with a phony liberalism (or conservatism) to confirm the often unexamined perspectives of a specific political constituency. Such a technique is most readily employed against the apparently irrational ideas, beliefs and practices of a foreign other. In this regard “conspiracy theorists” and “truthers” typically play the “straw man” role.

The state, in its ongoing effort to shore up broken timbers in the pale of American innocence, has long worked directly with the media. By now, we all know – or should know – about government lies and media collusion around the invasion of Iraq, to take just one example. BTW, you might find this 2003 video of Robert Mueller (then FBI Director) testifying about Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” disturbing in the context of gatekeeping:

Long before Iraq, in “Operation Mockingbird,” the CIA infiltrated major news organizations, planted stories, thwarted criticism of the Warren Commission Report and labeled its critics as the original “conspiracy theorists.” Of the hundreds of journalists who have colluded with the CIA, wrote Carl Bernstein back in 1977, “By far the most valuable of these associations, according to CIA officials, have been with the New York Times, CBS and Time Inc.” We can certainly assume that this process continues today.

Ultimately, we follow the money, and here is where the idea and myth of equivalency breaks down utterly. We range far beyond notions of “good intentions” and “fair representation” when we hear arguments about the equivalency of access to the airwaves. Even primary gatekeepers such as the NYT (here) and The New Yorker (here) have admitted that long before the “Citizen’s United” Supreme Court decision, the Tea Party was created (in the tens of millions of dollars) by the Koch brothers and the tobacco industry. The “populist uprising” that “spontaneously” developed in 2009 and propelled Donald Trump into the White House would have been nothing but a minor conspirator’s convention without its massive, corporate subsidies.

At the Koch brothers’ level of influence, they can simply buy or create entire gatekeeping institutions, such as a libertarian “think tank” that labeled North Dakota as the “most free” state in the union even as it was attempting to ban abortion. Similarly, Rupert Murdoch bought The Wall Street Journal and dozens of other gatekeeper media outlets. And Jeff Bezos, who has contracted with the CIA, is now the proud owner of the venerable Washington Post, second only to the NYT as first gatekeeper of the nation.

The only way to argue that “left” and “right” have equal access to media is to set the bar so low as to marginalize any voices to the left of the Democratic National Committee. There is not and never was any equivalency. Still, there is little point in blaming the rich for wanting to maintain control. We mythologists should be far more interested in why so many Americans support people and parties that have never served their interests, even when those interests are defined broadly as “values.”

The good news is that, even with so many of us still willing to consume the dominant mythology of innocence – witness the ongoing, national hagiography of the warmonger John McCain – so many others have always opted out. This fact actually forces people like Sheldon Adelson, Betsy DeVoss, Murdoch and the Kochs to expend their fortunes trying to keep enough of us thinking within the pale – or to abandon the political engagement entirely, which serves the same purposes.

Ironically and unknowingly, these billionaire “libertarians” offer tribute to the opponents that they would destroy. To have their press puppets imply that movements that must organize bake sales to raise the money to educate the public about global warming are “equivalent” to their own slick media barrages and fabricated “mass demonstrations” is, in truth, to admit the power of authentic ideas. It is to admit the power of the people whose respect they can only buy but never earn. It is to admit that the myth of American Innocence, though very old, is also very unstable.

FEs played a major role in 2016. What did the media want – besides marginalizing Bernie Sanders – in an election that for months appeared to be one in which Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in? The media wanted business, and a close election would be good for business. We recall CBS chairman Les Moonves’ appraisal of the Trump phenomenon: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

So from that perspective, it made perfect sense to emphasize equivalences, rather than differences, between Clinton and Trump. Large numbers of Americans, of course, didn’t need to be reminded that the Democratic Party powers had done their own job of marginalizing Sanders, and that Clinton was highly unpopular among progressives, many of whom refused to hold their noses and vote for the lesser of two evils.

What actually turned the tide in the last weeks? Russians? Voter suppression and disenfranchisement? Hacking of voting machines? James Comey’s last-minute revelations about investigating Clinton? The argument goes on. But clearly, the media got the close election that it wanted, and presenting FEs was one of its methods. The great irony is that the media that Trump would come to attack as “fake” had actually created him, built up his image, diminished Clinton, propelled him into office and proceeded to nourish that image through many more months of FE’s

Regardless of what we think of Hillary Clinton, the tapes of Trump bragging of abusive behavior and allegations of sexual assault and the Clinton emails were both legitimate stories, but not equivalent in their import, as the media barrage claimed. The NYT even implied that Clinton supporters were equally responsible for violence at Trump rallies.

Lester Holt and Elaine Quijano used the term “Race Relations” Instead of “White Supremacy” while moderating the presidential and vice presidential debates. Holt spoke of “healing the divide” between the races, implying another simple equivalency. And the Times’ primary gatekeeper David Brooks, the voice of the reasonable center, attacked “political correctness,” casually equating racists and those who fight them:

But it’s not only racists who reduce people to a single identity. These days it’s the anti-racists, too. To raise money and mobilize people, advocates play up ethnic categories to an extreme degree.

Really? Was defining racists as racist equivalent to threatening violence against vulnerable populations?

Bias incidents on both sides have been reported. A student walking near a campus was threatened with being lit on fire because she wore a hijab. Other students were accused of being racist for supporting Mr.Trump…

Eric Alterman writes:

The only explanation I can muster for this embarrassment is The Times’unyielding commitment to false-equivalency narratives, the product of decades of conservative efforts to work the refs. The thinking seems to boil down to this: “We’re running an article about Trump supporters’ violence against immigrants, people of color, Muslims and Jews, so shouldn’t we also say something mean about liberals too? We wouldn’t want anyone to accuse us of liberal bias.” This has long been the modus operandi at virtually every establishment media institution, and its cost has been normalizing Trump and his assaults on our free press and democratic norms.

The perspective of the pro-Clinton, reasonable center was that Trump and Sanders were simply two sides of the same coin:

NPR: “5 Ways Bernie Sanders And Donald Trump Are More Alike Than You Think”

The Atlantic“What Trump and Sanders Have in Common”

Huffington Post: “How Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump’s Campaigns Are Similar”

Guardian“Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump Look Like Saviors to Voters Who Fe...

Washington Post: “This Is How Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump Are the Same Person”

And finally, for now,  this whopper, again from the WAPO: “The Obvious Trump Running Mate? Bernie Sanders, of Course.”

Part Four

Trump’s bellowing about fake news implies that the media lies about him and his policies. Well, of course they offer very selective versions of the news all the time. Newspapers have always been partisan, often quite openly. Only two or three generations ago, every major city in the U.S. (and still now, in most European, Asian and Latin American countries) had several dailies, with some clearly favoring the working class, even being proudly socialist, and others being the “papers of record” that fed carefully edited opinion masquerading as news news to the middle and upper classes. But even the working-class papers, if pro-union, often were nativist, racist and pro-war. And, with the media consolidation of the past fifty years – and willing cooperation with the national security establishment – (/) the differences have diminished further.

In this sense, I would argue that most American media have been “fake” for decades, consistently playing two alternating and contradictory roles. On the one hand, they terrorize us about the latest threats (fear of communism shifting smoothly to Islamophobia precisely when the Soviet Union collapsed). On the other, they assure us with Disneyesque sweetness and full-page consumer advertising that everything is quite all right. This is long-term crazy-making, or schizogenetic, behavior.  At the risk of being accused of being a gatekeeper myself, I’m noting a few useful links from sites that I trust:

— The Lie of the 21st Century: How Mainstream Media “Fake News” Led...

— 7 Reasons that the Corporate Media Is Pro-War

 The CIA and the Press: When the Washington Post Ran the CIA’s Propa...

— The Major Purveyor of ‘Fake News’ is the CIA-Corporate Complex

— The Entire Mainstream Warmongering Media is Fake

There have been exceptions, but we can assume a basic rule: as far back as the war with Mexico in 1846 the major media and their gatekeepers have always lied to push the nation into war. Some have expressed regret, long after the fact, but that is the fact. But we’re talking about something new. Now we’re talking about the collapse of American myth in our time, and the intended effects of FEs.

In 2017, Harvard University established a large list of online publications that it tagged as “fake” and “false,” based primarily on the recommendations of a shadowy group called “PropOrNot” that blacklisted over 200 websites as agents or assets of the Russian state. The “Harvard Index” established a new normal, a guideline to colleges and universities, regarding what students and researchers should not trust or even read.

Consider the implications of those last three words. The cream of the crop, students at elite universities, are being told that they are so uninformed (un-formed), so untrustworthy, so impressionable, so utterly unable to study and form their own conclusions, that Mother Harvard, like the cultural guardians of McCarthyism, doesn’t even want them to be exposed to this stuff.

Apparently, Harvard’s gatekeepers established their list without reading or even consulting the contents of most of the alleged fake online publications. It was a massive and utterly unscientific attack upon virtually the entire spectrum of alternative media, including thousands of authors and dozens of news organizations which would now be categorized not only as unreliable but even as conspiracy theorists.

It was one of the most egregious examples of FE, listing (in my view) quite legitimate investigative researchers and sites in the same breathless list as Alex Jones and other rabidly misogynistic, white supremacist, anti-immigrant and outright Nazi publications. It had the authority of Harvard, it went out to thousands of schools, and it quite deliberately led readers to believe that nothing to the right or left of the major gatekeeping media should be consumed. The WAPO and other corporate media then cited this index repeatedly. It was circular logic as well: one of the fact-checking sources that Harvard used was the WAPO. Matt Taibbi writes:

The vast majority of reporters would have needed to see something a lot more concrete than a half-assed theoretical paper from such a dicey source before denouncing 200 news organizations as traitors.

FEs turn up in all kinds of public discourses, such as “competing victimhood.” A privileged group argues that another group shouldn’t complain or demand special attention from government because, they, the first group, had also been treated badly but had prospered nonetheless. For example, large numbers of Irish were brought to the New World as indentured servants. But claiming an “equality of suffering” between enslaved Africans and w... has no other effect than to perpetuate white supremacy. Indeed, writes Liam Hogan, Trump supporters in North Carolina told a reporter for Time that “Irish slaves had it worse than African slaves.”

A trivial example, you might say. But it is not unrelated to a much more important one, the issue of electoral fraud and fake voters, which Trump raised immediately after the election, making the ludicrous claim that three-five million illegal voters had cost him the popular vote. It was, and continues to be, a smokescreen for the profoundly important reality of Republican voter suppression. But it fed directly into the bizarre condition that his supporters, despite their “victory,” still considered themselves to be victims of the deep state. By July of 2018, even ABC News was willing to report that states (mostly Republican) had purged 16 million voters in the three years prior to the election.

Some six million others, at least a third of them African-American, have been disenfranchised and banned entirely from voting, usually because they are ex-felons. This fact, along with voter suppression and hacking of voting machines (not by Russians but by Republican secretaries of state in Ohio and about 20 other states) far outweighs any other factors in the contemporary political situation. There is, of course, no evidence of millions of anti-Trump fake votes, but the repeated charges help to deflect public opinion from the actual situation, along with news of individuals caught up in the complexities of the situation: “Texas Woman Sentenced To 5 Years For Illegal Voting.”

Similarly, for a few years many centrists made a cottage industry of arguments that equated the origin, influence and popularity of the two “populist” movements: Occupy and the Tea Party. Typically, however, they ignored the vastly unequal treatment the two movements received from law enforcement, as well as the fact that the Tea Party had its own TV network that gave daily attention to its gatherings, no matter how small, and ignored much larger Occupy events. Most critically, they rarely mentioned the vast funding the Tea Party “grassroots insurgency” received from the Koch brothers and Big Tobacco. 

This type of FE has a long pedigree going back to the 1930s and 1940s, when centrist media equated the threats of fascism and communism in America in order to marginalize leftists in trade unions. It is inseparable from similar tactics the actual Nazis used in Germany, and the fake terror plots concocted by the FBI (yes, the FBI of James Comey and Robert Mueller).  When these FEs don’t have the intended fear mongering effect on the public, the next traditional step is the liberal use of agents provocateurs who, in countless examples, have converted peaceful, mass demonstrations into violent riots that justify even more violent police intervention.

And currently it centers on the issue of “free speech.” Trump doesn’t engage much in FEs, because the media – and now academia as well – do it for him, and because he plays the spokesperson for a deliberately indefinable, populist extreme that draws its energy by pretending to attack the establishment. The fact that his actual policies, like those of all his predecessors, consistently buttress that same establishment doesn’t matter. We are talking about rhetoric, not action.

He did utilize them after provoking and normalizing the violence In Charlottesville last year that left one anti-Nazi protester dead  and 19 others wounded, and then equating anti-racist demonstrators with right-wing provocateurs and Alt-right criminals.  His claim that there was both evil and “good people” on both sides was certainly an invitation to further abuses.

But to spread such nonsense, he needed help from the existence of something called the “Alt-left,” a term that progressives and leftists have never used to describe themselves. FOX created it, but the rest of the media ran with it, writes Adam Johnson:

As it turns out, there’s no way to suggest that unruly leftists are as bad as neo-Nazis without suggesting that neo-Nazis are no worse than unruly leftists…while coined by right-wing personalities such as Sean Hannity, the “alt-left” term quickly morphed into a catch-all smear employed by Clinton partisans and those charged with defending the more corporate, pro-war wing of the Democrats. It was a go-to smear online for The Nation’s Joan Walsh, Daily Beast’s Michael Weiss, Daily Kos and VoxMedia founder Markos Moulitsas, Observer and Time writer Nick Cohen, Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert, self-appointed Clinton spinmeister Tom Watson, MSNBC’s Joy Ann Reid and Center for American Progress head Neera Tanden, among others. “In many ways, this alt-left matches the alt-right…in their economic populism and bullying tactics.” —Gil Troy (Time, 12/7/16) The term was similarly employed by historian Gil Troy in Time (12/6/16), Vanity Fair‘s James Wolcott (3/3/17) and Ray Suarez on NPR’s On the Media (6/12/17)…All these pundits and writers presumably thought equating leftists with Nazis (the logical implication of the “alt” prefix) was an easy way to score points and position themselves on the Reasonable Liberal Left. What they did instead was provide fodder for anyone on the right, looking to trivialize the threat of an emerging neo-Nazism, to “both sides” the problem out of existence.

Who would deny Americans the right to speak out? Certainly not the NYT. However, a study shows that its coverage of free speech on university campuses focuses on the plight of conservative students by a margin of 7-to-1.

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