Don’t Like the News? Kill the Messenger

I’m not a journalist but I have worked with and around journalists for over two decades, something I have talked about before here and here.

Which is why I found it disheartening to read the story of the demise of LAWeekly as I knew it. While it is true that newspapers and other journalism outlets have struggled over the past decade or so in the face of economic hardship brought on by the internet (and to some extent, themselves), to learn that an established news outlet has been deliberately targeted for destruction is chilling.

Years ago, I read the LAWeekly and its sister publication the East Bay Express rather frequently when I was a college student in California. These “alternative” weeklies could always be relied on to provide thoughtful stories about local issues not covered in much depth by the bigger news organizations. (Washington, D.C.’s alternative weekly, the Washington City Paper, is still chugging away, but it’s sister paper, the Baltimore City Paper, folded in 2017.)

The story I read about how the LAWeekly has been gutted may contain some hyperbole–journalists are not perfect, and often they have an overblown sense of self and of the importance of their work, in my view.

But I have no doubt that the institution of journalism with its modern emphasis on fairness and accuracy is essential to the effectiveness of democracy and the protection of civil rights. To disparage legitimate journalism as so-called fake news–as President Trump does almost daily–creates a situation where fewer and fewer people trust facts, such as they are.

(It’s important to remember that the freedom of the press was important enough to the Founding Fathers that it is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution–alongside the freedom to practice the religion of one’s choice and ahead of the right to bear arms.)

According to this version of events from the editorial staff at The LAnd Magazine, the LAWeekly was bought by a “cabal of Republican donors and Trump supporters from Orange County” who are “devoted to defeating progressive ideas by indoctrinating young conservatives and infiltrating what they considered to be liberal institutions.” If true, this is another example of the hypocrisy of conservatives these days.

Conservatives themselves claim with alarming frequency that liberals are somehow “indoctrinating” or “brainwashing” people (if you want examples, leave a comment–I don’t want to unnecessarily drive traffic to people promoting falsehoods). The argument is illogical, however.

The conventional concept of brainwashing requires that someone is led by the intentional actions of others to believe something they would not have and could not have believed if left to their own thought processes. If a journalistic organization publishes verifiable fact, without attempting to manipulate its audience, and someone reads it and draws a conclusion, I can’t see how that, in any way, is brainwashing. (Note that conservative “news” manipulates its audience intentionally every day by distorting the facts and not questioning unsupported claims.)

Conservatives give lip service to individual liberty. However, conservatives are all too eager to oppose that exercise of personal liberty when individuals make up their own minds about their own lives and the lives of those around them in a way that does not conform to an established conservative point of view.

Conservatism, almost be definition, is threatened by new ideas and the reconsideration of how we as a society view the world. It is thus not in favor of personal liberty at all, but rather the adherence to a strict set of codes of (mostly old fashioned) behavior. If a news outlet such as LAWeekly questions those conservative “values,” it is seen as a threat to the conservative ideal.

A threat that, unfortunately, is sometimes targeted for elimination. So who is the larger threat?

Maybe this is an isolated incident and perhaps I’m over-generalizing (overreacting?). And maybe the ideal of having news that’s free of bias is a pipe dream. But the possibility that reasonable people cannot agree on some basic structures of society, such that we now have flavored news that meets our preferred tastes, is frightening.

“Participatory democracy depends on a broadly shared view of reality, and therefore on trusted institutions of journalism and mass media.” – Kevin Platt, University of Pennsylvania

Change Comes from Within

A few years ago, a documentary aired on TV called 1968: The Year That Changed America. It was about how the events, politics, and social movements of 1968, in the words of the producers, “forever changed the modern American landscape.”

Except that, it now would seem that nothing ever really changed at all. America may no longer be legally segregated, but we are as much divided along racial, ethnic, and religious lines as we ever were. The federal government is in chaos and unable to effectively address the real needs of the American people. People are protesting in the streets nationwide. We have a president who is egotistical, unqualified, and more interested in scoring political points than actually governing the country. We have a media industry that is both part of the solution and contributing to the problem. We have an economy that works well for a few people and excludes many. We have people self-destructing through excessive drug use. We have a Congress that appears to be unable to do anything meaningful.

It would appear that we as a country have learned nothing, and it makes me wonder how that happened. It is as if we collectively have an underdeveloped ability to learn, to regulate our own behavior, and to make changes for the better. Perhaps we suffer from multiple personality disorder, that there isn’t just one America but many, many different ones.

Or perhaps we are in recovery from trauma, that the events of 1968 didn’t set us on the road to improvement but rather created the dividing line between before and after. Most people who suffer a traumatic event view it as a pivotal point in their lives, that they are not the same person after that they were before.

Maybe America continues to struggle with coming to terms with this new sense of self, and we’re not there yet. But are we trying? Sometimes I wonder. Many are, but are there enough of us to create true change? Is change gonna come? Or will we just anesthetize ourselves and turn a blind eye to the real work that needs doing.

I would like to think we have it in us to do the work. When we’re at our best, we do. But, as with anything, we have to want to change. And it is our loss of we don’t.

What is new about American police brutality towards black people? Why did it take the death of George Floyd for the people of Bristol to recognize that they had a monument to a slave owner in their city’s midst? The real question is not what should people do but will people go back to sleep or not? Will we have learned? – Dr. Gabor Mate

 

A genuine change must first come from within the individual, only then can he or she attempt to make a significant contribution to humanity. – Dalai Lama

 

Guns are Owned by People

Full disclosure: I’ve given money more than once to Everytown for Gun Safety, because I believe that America would be a better place with less gun violence. Just in the past two years, we’ve seen Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, Thousand Oaks, Sutherland Springs, Parkland. Before that, there was Orlando, Washington Navy Yard, Newtown. On a regular basis, we get reports of a new one.

This is on top of what could be called “normal background” gun violence. These are the drive-by shootings in a city like Chicago, Baltimore or Los Angeles, the hunting accidents, the self-inflicted gun wounds. To me, having fewer guns at hand and making them harder to obtain would, automatically, reduce the level of gun violence. It just makes sense.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-gun. Guns are, under the right circumstances, a useful means for getting what you want, such as a deer, and marksmanship is a fun test of skill (I once upon a time earned my Marksman First Class certificate from the NRA).

Those who advocate for tougher gun policies also feel that guns are too easy to get. “Weak gun laws in most states mean that virtually anyone can openly carry loaded weapons without any permits, training or background checks,” says one email from Everytown for Gun Safety. “Inadequate laws that fail to hold adults accountable for unintentional shootings reinforce the idea that they are merely “accidents” rather than completely preventable tragedies,” another says.

Common sense, no? Who would dispute that fewer guns, or raising the level of gun owner responsibility to that of a motor vehicle owner, would equate to fewer gun deaths? Why is there so little traction on this issue?

Because gun ownership and usage are not one unified issue but at least two distinct ones with very little overlap.

On the one hand, guns are owned and gun violence is committed by people who view the gun as a tool. The gun, and the shooting of people (or anything else), is a means to an end. Whether it is for settling disputes, defending territory, or obtaining something they want, the gun is the the hammer that drives the nail, the wrench that removes the bolt, the key to open a door.

On the other hand, there are a significant number of people (in America) for whom owning a gun is an important piece of their identity. In other words, they identify as “gun owner” just as they identify as a member of their family, a part of their culture, or with being an American. And when someone says that gun ownership should be restricted, it is these people who get anxious and defensive.

This is actually an understandable reaction. The concept of identity is complex, and goes to the very heart of who we perceive ourselves to be. What I am is a bundle of self-identifiers, and if enough of them are removed, I would find it difficult to recognize myself. And the piece of my identity that defines me the most is the one I will cling to the hardest.

This leads to some complicated social interactions, fuzzy logic, and paradoxical situations. An article published last year in the Atlantic makes the point that it is common for people to deny what’s in front of them if it means denying a firmly-held belief about themselves. “If the thing you might be wrong about is a belief that’s deeply tied to your identity or worldview…then people [do] all the mental gymnastics it takes to remain convinced that they’re right.”

Additionally, because a vital facet of identity is being able to recognize who is in your tribe, then surrendering a piece of your identity will naturally cut you off from your social support network. “Having social support…is far more important than knowing the truth about some facts that do not directly impinge on your life,” the article quotes Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist.

No one wants to live in a violent community, but no one wants to feel alone either. People will disagree on what to do about gun violence based on how they see “us” versus “them.”

Those who dispute that fewer guns would equate to fewer gun deaths seem to be those gun owners for whom such information conflicts with their identity. The current gun control debate rings false for lawful gun owners, who get more and more entrenched in their desire to defend who they perceive themselves to be.

If Everytown for Gun Safety really wants to make progress on the gun sense laws, they will need to find common ground with the lawful gun owners. That won’t happen without a change in tactics, tone, and language. Simply stating statistics accomplishes nothing, according to the Atlantic article, because to the person who holds a particular belief about themselves, such arguments are to be ignored.

The events of the 20th century show that when people’s identities are threatened–whether it’s by increased rights for women, desegregation, redistribution of wealth, immigration policies, etc.–forced change breeds antipathy and resentment. And that’s not a recipe for lasting change.

We Are All In This Together

John Glenn. Alan Shepard. Gus Grissom. Wally Schirra.

We all know these names. They were the first Americans in space. They were astronauts and they were heroes.

But getting them into space required the dedication and effort of thousands of people.

Robert Gilruth–does anyone know who he was?

Not me. But today I saw the movie Hidden Figures and started looking into the character of Al Harrison. Obviously, I didn’t know about the three women whose lives are the main focus of the movie–Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson. But according to NASA, there were so many people involved in getting the Mercury astronauts into space that even the white, Anglo-Saxon men are obscure to us today.

Only the names of the heroes have survived.

Yet, for every hero celebrated in the popular imagination, there are the scores and scores of unsung people without whom those acts of heroism would never have happened.

Sir Edmund Hillary had all those Sherpas getting him to the top of Everest.

Jacques Cousteau had all those workers to run the Calypso and keep tabs on things topside when he was underwater.

All the men and women who ever served in the armed forces have to thank the designers and builders of every single ship, aircraft, armored vehicle and piece of weaponry they’ve used from the beginning of history. When the call goes out to celebrate the troops, do we ever hear about those unsung people who’ve made it all happen?

No.

The next time you hear the currently popular rhetoric about how everyone who has served in uniform is automatically a hero, I challenge you to think about the entire community that supports those troops–the supply chains, the families, the employees who pick up the slack when the soldiers deploy.

Because it is time to set aside the rock star mentality and realize that, to be a nation, to be a community, we are all in this together.

To Be Young and Smart and Opposed to Driverless Cars

My 15-year-old son, like most boys his age, is growing interested in getting his driver’s license. So I asked him the other day what he thought about self-driving cars.

He thought they were a bad idea because, if everything were automated, “there would be no challenges left in life.”

See? Even kids know that the research into and development of driverless cars is a waste of time and money.

Try doing this in your self-driving car.

Try doing this in your self-driving car.

It continues to be unclear to me what problem the developers of automated vehicles are seeking to solve–just as it is unclear to my kids and to most Americans.

One of the arguments put forward is that if you don’t have to pay attention to driving, it will allow you to do other things while traveling. This assumes that all driving is a form of drudgery that we desire to be freed from by robots.

But not all driving is drudgery. In fact, driving a sporty car along country roads on cool, sunny days with the wind in your hair is a hell of a lot of fun. Only commuter driving–where your time is sucked to oblivion by the traffic jams–is drudgery. And there are already solutions to that. It’s called public transportation.

Besides, what we want at the end of the day is to feel in control. We harbor fears of airline crashes because we are at the mercy of the pilot and the aircraft. At the same time, we discount the risk of automobiles precisely because we feel we are doing something while at the wheel.

But my son also was touching on a deeper point, one that has been discussed in an engaging way by the author Sebastian Junger. “Life in modern society,” writes Junger, “is designed to eliminate as many unforeseen events as possible, and as inviting as that seems, it leaves us hopelessly underutilized.” He goes on to argue that everything in human history leading up to this point has made us want more out of life than just having everything done for us, by robots or otherwise. Having some risk and excitement is healthy.

The automated car cartel is not talking only about safety. (There really is a cartel — click on the link. Really.) The Googles and Ubers of the world say they are pursuing innovation. My son pointed out that we could innovate in other, more useful ways that do not involve autonomous cars and still improve safety and provide other benefits.

For instance, a smart driver’s license could prevent a car from operating if you were drunk or if your license was suspended, two of the biggest safety hazards on the road today. I think this is a great idea, and it’s coming coming from a 15-year-old. Why has this not been done already?

And yet the driverless car proponents continue to live in their own echo chamber, pouring money into technology nobody really wants, and thinking they are improving the world for future generations.

Unfortunately, it is a world that my son has no interest living in.

Updated Oct. 21, 2016, at 11:05 a.m.