Of blackface and Bible-banning: here we go again!

Only yesterday I responded on Facebook to the Hillary-in-blackface hoax that ended up somehow on my newsfeed. It's been floating around for quite a while but only achieved viral status due to the discovery of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's medical school photo wearing the racist disguise.

The woman in the picture clearly isn't Hillary- she has the wrong color eyes, for one thing- and while the guy bears a slight resemblance to Bill, it isn't him, either. That much is certain. But as is usual in such cases, the lie isn't stopped by being exposed for what it is.

Today, it happened again. I received a Facebook Messenger nudge urging me to help circulate a video from extreme right-wing propaganda site One America News Network (OAN) claiming that a bill in the California legislature would forbid the circulation of books and other materials seeking to change people's minds about homosexuality in a negative direction. It was even claimed that it would (or could be reasonably interpreted to) ban the sale and circulation of the Bible!

This sort of thing has a kind of hysterical aroma about it, the kind of fanatical aura that tends to be rather obvious to all but the extremely gullible and- well, fanatics. Sure enough, despite a video of a doomsaying California legislator making all manner of outrageous claims to the contrary, in fact, the bill does no such thing.

It merely bans the ineffective and psychologically-abusive practice of "conversion therapy," which seems to turn gays and lesbians into heterosexuals-. and even then only bans it when the person doing the "therapy" charges money for it.

As more and more people turn to "news sources" which represent bizarre and distorted viewpoints and not only manipulate but mangle the news to support various wild-eyed, extreme viewpoints on both sides of the political spectrum, it's getting harder and harder to know who to believe. The leftward bias of CNN and the network news departments is well-known, though denied by... well, the people with that very leftward bias. The election of Donald Trump has brought to greater prominence the zany alt-right web and print culture which if anything presents an even more distorted view of reality. If there's one good thing about the dishonesty of Donald Trump. it's that by being as outrageous as it's been it's driven the mainstream media into hysterics which make their bias even harder to deny.

That bias, as I've pointed out before, is not conscious. It's what happens when people who are trained at the same universities (which themselves these days seem to have become less educational institutions than boot-camps for left-wing indoctrination) and hang out in the same circles, share the same attitudes and world-views, and spend their lives in intellectually incestuous contact with each other come to thoroughly dominate any field. Journalism is the field in which the phenomenon in which it's become most obvious, but the problem exists in education, sciences, and virtually every academic and professional field in which groupthink and a lack of ideological diversity expose people only to one highly-distorted and unobjective take on the world and what goes on in it.

I really believe that for the most part these people honesty do try to be objective, and are honestly oblivious to the degree to which they fail. And the same is true of the zany Right- which, with the takeover of the Republican party by Trumpism, is pretty much the only part of the Right with any traction.

Sometimes tautologies are the clearest way to state a truth we find easy to overlook. And the fact is that people who view the world through an ideologically-distorted lens view the world through an ideologically distorted lens! It shouldn't be surprising that what they see through that lens doesn't correspond in all respects to reality.  And the fact is that, to one extent or another, all of us view the world through the distorting lens of our own perspective, experiences, and ideology.

While my political nose is usually sensitive enough to catch things which  obviously don't pass the "smell test," like the Hillary-in-blackface story or the notion that the California legislature is trying to ban the sale of the Bible (I mean, I know they tend to be a bit crazy in California, but come on!), I have also fallen into the same trap on occasion. I take pride in the fact that when I realize that I've been "had" by what President Trump calls "fake news," unlike President Trump, I retract anything it has caused me to claim rather than double down on it.

I could forgive an awful lot from Donald Trump if he just would admit it when he's wrong and has been shown beyond a reasonable doubt to be wrong.

A word about that, by the way. I believe it was Josef Goebbels, Hitler's Minister of Propaganda (and no, I am not comparing Trump to Hitler here in any way but this one) who advised people who are trying to pull the wool over the eyes of others to accuse their opponents of precisely what they themselves are doing. It's an excellent strategy. Misdirection of that kind somehow tends to immunize the person using it from scrutiny. Any time one's own failings in a certain area are pointed out by someone against whom one has already leveled the same accusation, they lose their potency and come off as "counter-punching." They tend not to be believed- or at least to be as completely and readily believed as they might have been, except perhaps in the harmless sense that "they all do it."

Donald Trump, whose reign of error is literally unique in our nation's history for its wildness, its frequency, and its extent, is (to engage in another tautology) in a category by himself when it comes to exaggeration and outright dishonesty. "All politicians" may, in fact, lie, but literally none in our history has done so as often, as consistently, as blatantly, as stubbornly, and even as needlessly as Donald John Trump. And notoriously, he never admits to having been wrong, no matter how strong the evidence.

Never. Not even, as he himself once observed,  to God.

The irony of Donald Trump being the person who coined the expression "fake news" is profound. By doing so he provided his most fanatical supporters with a tool for totally excluding any argument or fact that doesn't fit their worldview and doesn't serve his agenda. I suspect that unlike the liberal media, he knows exactly what he's doing. In fact, the possibility that he doesn't is even more frightening than the likelihood that he does. Better a manipulative and dishonest president than a delusional one!

A nation in which the means of communication are uniformly in the hands of people who hold the same worldview and political attitudes, while those who oppose those attitudes are equipped with an easy and convenient means to construct an artificial reality in which any fact which doesn't happen to fit their preconceived notion of the world must necessarily be "fake news," is a perfect storm. I myself have "bought" false stories about things Donald Trump has supposedly said or done precisely because he so regularly does and says such outrageous and unbelievable things that it's hard to apply the "smell test" where he's concerned. On the other hand, the univocal media so routinely distorts the facts and gives undue weight to one side of controversial social issues that skepticism even when it speaks with one voice is by no means unreasonable. In fact, one would be a fool not to be skeptical!

So what's the solution? We- and by "we," I mean society as a whole, including the leftist-dominated colleges and universities who are least likely to do so- need to somehow get conservatives to go to journalism school, and in large numbers. The same is true of Ph.D. programs and college faculties at all levels and in all the social disciplines. We need to do this not to give conservatives a greater voice per se, but because only when findings and assertions are subject to rigorous and robust challenge, and survive it, can they be trusted. The peer review in which scientists rightly place such stock is only as good as the body of peers doing the reviewing are capable of challenging its faulty presuppositons, and only an ideologically, philosophically, and probably even religiously diverse group of peers is likely to be able to see through the ideological distortions and unwarranted assumptions which are bound to contaminate any study done by fallible human beings, be they ever so honest and scrupulous. Only then can any of us be sure that what we're getting is the truth, as opposed to partisan drivel which is being passed off as truth because none of the gatekeepers who should prevent such a thing from happening are asking the right questions, or insisting on rigorously honest answers, because they honestly don't see the questions which need to be asked.

But that isn't likely, either in the media or in the scientific community or anywhere else. Journalists and "experts" thrive on being in positions of authority, on being the people who can tell us what to believe and who can do so without necessarily being accountable for their answers. And as long as they refuse to see the problem, the situation is unlikely to change.

So how do we know what to believe on Facebook or Twitter or other social media? Well, we should never believe, much less pass along, anything we ourselves haven't checked out, for one thing. But then, the author of the post which found its way into my newsfeed on pseudo-Hillary and pseudo-Bill and the blackface incident claimed that he had checked it out, and I have no doubt that he did- with all manner of nutty right-wing sources with no journalistic integrity but plenty of enthusiasm for zinging the Clintons.

He might better have checked the story out by consulting as many different sources with as many different political viewpoints and agendas as possible. But when you're eager to believe something, you're not apt to vet it as carefully as something you don't want to believe.

Hey. I'm in the same boat. But if we have an ounce of integrity we'll recognize that we're in that boat, and try to get out of it.

How do we know when President Trump really said or did that crazy thing we read about even in The New York Times or the Washington Post?  Because they can no more be uncritically believed than the president himself can. They put words in his mouth. They attribute things to him he never even comes close to saying. Usually, the reason is that they take what he says as implying what they report him as saying, reading things into his statements things which the words themselves may not say and which the president may or may not have intended.

By all means, read the articles they write about what Mr. Trump says. But don't stop there. Read the statement itself- if possible, the entire statement, so that you can see the thing Mr. Trump is being quoted as saying in context. That way, if you misinterpret it, it will at least be because of your own prejudice rather than that of some left-wing journalist.

And try to do something which is very hard, and which Mr. Trump utterly refuses to do: when you're wrong, admit it. And try to be as concerned that what you pass along to others is fair and factual as that it is useful in vindicating your own viewpoint.

It's hard to do, and you're going to fail. So am I. Sometimes we get carried away in the excitement of the moment. And often, past experience with a subject or a source seems to give a story an air of credibility it doesn't deserve.

But we all need a healthy dose of skepticism, and most of all toward statements and claims we agree with and that support our own points of view.


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