Citizens of a Failed StateMay 28, 2020
Remembering What America Might Have Been
By Jeremy Gerard
‘What has died since the coronavirus began cutting its global swath is the notion — central to our collective identity — of American exceptionalism. As George Packer writes in The Atlantic, “Every morning in the endless month of March, Americans woke up to find themselves citizens of a failed state.” The epidemic, he said, has reduced us to “a beggar nation in utter chaos.”
This phenomenon is more than the natural extension of our earlier sense that the federal government no longer functions on behalf of us all. The virus as metaphor couldn’t be more apt (sorry Susa Sontag), for it undermined the dearly held notion that the United States occupies a special, deity-endowed place in the world as a beacon to all others.
That idea of specialness, historically appropriated by religious, not political, entities, was first applied to the United States with intentional irony by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th century. (It was inevitably tied, as I learned in grade school, to the concept of Manifest Destiny, which to a sixth-grader explained God’s plan that white Europeans “discover” a “New World,” usurp the land, perpetrate genocide on its inhabitants, enslave peoples from an entirely different continent and lay waste its natural riches to provide goods and commodities for the Motherland.)
Credit the internet with leading us to finally understand how fragile the concept of citizenship really is, and how even leaders with good intentions are threatened by a consumerist conspiracy to turn the world into one big Amazon shopping basket. We have borne out what so impressed Tocqueville more than a century ago: Not American idealism; on the contrary, what struck him was our obsession with accumulation of wealth as the sole factor giving meaning to life.
[Jeremy Gerard is a widely published critic and reporter on culture, politics and human-rights issues. He has been a staff writer at Bloomberg News, New York magazine and the New York Times.]
The light on the hill has faded. We were never Camelot. And there is no air.
An Easter MeditationApril 12, 2020
‘…resist empire with truth and love, even if it kills you.’
-Pádraig Ó Tuama, poet, theologian and mediator.
Principles for a Pandemic
by Sister Joan chittister
“Rules are not necessarily sacred,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “principles are.”
One thing is clear: “Rules” are not getting us out of the largest pandemic in modern history.
We’re washing our hands and wearing our masks and staying indoors and counting the number of people in every group, but the numbers keep going up regardless.
At the same time, principles, if any, may be necessary but nobody talks about them much —despite the fact that it’s principles that guide our behavior or help us to evaluate what’s going on around us. Principles are the motivating force upon which everything we do is based.
The question is what kind of basic truths — principles — must drive us if we are to endure and survive the kind of despair that threatens a national moment like this one? Here we are at the touchdown point of a tornado called a pandemic. Everything about life before this has been wiped away. Worse, we have not a hint of what our world will look like in the future. Unless we define the principles we need to preserve, not only to get us through this moment but to prepare for all the great moments in times to come, this will all have been for nothing.
Becoming a spiritual person is what raises us above the angst of life. We can lose anything, let anything go, begin again after whatever tornado shreds us if we only learn to live with one part of the human heart daily invested in the presence of the divine. In that sacred space within, we seek the strength it takes to respond rightly to the pressure of such pain. We are not pleading for magic from a vending machine God to save us from its inconvenience.
We take on the challenges of the community — the masks and distancing and overtime work that’s needed — as if they were our personal responsibility alone. We check on those who are frail, who need to know they’re not alone, who are seeking services. We allow no one to be out of contact. We volunteer where we’re needed.
The principles of the holy life are obvious: it begins with a sterling spirituality, an abounding love of community and an incessant sense of personal responsibility that makes the undoable, doable always.
Until finally, it depends on following leadership that glows with goodness and vision. It is the leadership that shows us all how to be more empathic, more aware of the needs of others, more present to the demands of it all. It is the living vision of moral leadership that sends us back into the wind as long as it rages. It brings us to a greatness no circumstances can exhaust, no storm can conquer.
From where I stand, it’s not about the rules. It’s about the heart. Then we can go on, and go on, and go on. For over 1,500 years. Same rule, same principles, same gratuitous generosity of life.
A woman wearing a protective mask due to the coronavirus pandemic prays inside the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on Palm Sunday, April 5 in Turin, Italy. (CNS/Reuters/Massimo Pinca)
From Journalist Bill Moyers:
‘During these trying days of social distancing, self-isolating and quarantines, days rife with fear and anxiety, my colleagues and I thought you might like some company. So each day we will be introducing you to poets we have met over the years. The only contagion they will expose you to is a measure of joy, reflection and meditation brought on by “the best words in the best order.” Enjoy.’
Today we hear from Wendell Berry as he reads “A Poem on Hope.”
“A Poem on Hope”
It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old,
For hope must not depend on feeling good
And there is the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight.
You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality
Of the future, which surely will surprise us,
…And hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction
Any more than by wishing. But stop dithering.
The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?
Tell them at least what you say to yourself.
Because we have not made our lives to fit
Our places, the forests are ruined, the fields eroded,
The streams polluted, the mountains overturned. Hope
Then to belong to your place by your own knowledge
Of what it is that no other place is, and by
Your caring for it as you care for no other place, this
Place that you belong to though it is not yours,
For it was from the beginning and will be to the end
Belong to your place by knowledge of the others who are
Your neighbors in it: the old man, sick and poor,
Who comes like a heron to fish in the creek,
And the fish in the creek, and the heron who manlike
Fishes for the fish in the creek, and the birds who sing
In the trees in the silence of the fisherman
And the heron, and the trees that keep the land
They stand upon as we too must keep it, or die.
This knowledge cannot be taken from you by power
Or by wealth. It will stop your ears to the powerful
when they ask for your faith, and to the wealthy
when they ask for your land and your work.
Answer with knowledge of the others who are here
And how to be here with them. By this knowledge
Make the sense you need to make. By it stand
In the dignity of good sense, whatever may follow.
Speak to your fellow humans as your place
Has taught you to speak, as it has spoken to you.
Speak its dialect as your old compatriots spoke it
Before they had heard a radio. Speak
Publicly what cannot be taught or learned in public.
Listen privately, silently to the voices that rise up
From the pages of books and from your own heart.
Be still and listen to the voices that belong
To the streambanks and the trees and the open fields.
There are songs and sayings that belong to this place,
By which it speaks for itself and no other.
Found your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.
Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground
Underfoot. Be it lighted by the light that falls
Freely upon it after the darkness of the nights
And the darkness of our ignorance and madness.
Let it be lighted also by the light that is within you,
Which is the light of imagination. By it you see
The likeness of people in other places to yourself
In your place. It lights invariably the need for care
Toward other people, other creatures, in other places
As you would ask them for care toward your place and you.
No place at last is better than the world. The world
Is no better than its places. Its places at last
Are no better than their people while their people
Continue in them. When the people make
Dark the light within them, the world darkens.
Wendell Berry is a man of the land and one of America’s most influential writers, whose prolific career includes more than forty books of poetry, novels, short stories and essays. Watch Bill’s full conversation with Wendell Berry.
Wendell Berry, a quiet and humble man, has become an outspoken advocate for revolution. He urges immediate action as he mourns how America has turned its back on the land and rejected Jeffersonian principles of respect for the environment and sustainable agriculture. Berry warns, “People who own the world outright for profit will have to be stopped; by influence, by power, by us.” In a rare television interview, this visionary, author, and farmer discusses a sensible, but no-compromise plan to save the Earth.
The power of organized people.July 10, 2018
Center For Action & Contemplation
People have good reasons to be angry and afraid today. Poverty, racism, climate change, and so many other injustices are causing real suffering for much of the world. Unfortunately, dualistic and oppositional energies cannot bring the change we so desperately need; we cannot fight angry power with more angry power. Only the contemplative mind has the ability to hold the reality of what is and the possibility of what could be. Unless our hearts are transformed, our fears will continue to manipulate our politics, reinforcing a polarized and divided society.
Quaker activist and teacher Parker Palmer has a hopeful, but not Pollyannaish, view. He writes:
Human beings have a well-demonstrated capacity to hold the tension of differences in ways that lead to creative outcomes and advances. It is not an impossible dream to believe we can apply that capacity to politics. In fact, our capacity for creative tension-holding is what made the American experiment possible in the first place. . . . America’s founders—despite the bigotry that limited their conception of who “We the People” were—had the genius to establish [a] form of government in which differences, conflict, and tension were understood not as the enemies of a good social order but as the engines of a better social order.
As “We the People” retreat from the public square and resort to private gripe sessions with those who think like us, we create a vacuum at the center of America’s public life. Politics abhors a vacuum as much as nature does, so nondemocratic powers rush in to fill the void—especially the power called “big money.” . . .
When the Supreme Court gave big money even more power [in the 2010 Citizens United decision], it made many Americans feel even more strongly that their small voices do not count. . . . Wrongly held, our knowledge of the power wielded by big money can accelerate our retreat from politics, discouraging us from being the participants that democracy demands and reducing us to mere spectators of a political game being played exclusively by “them.”
Palmer quotes Bill Moyers: “The antidote, the only antidote, to the power of organized money in Washington is the power of organized people.”
Media LiteracyJanuary 2, 2017
A Savvy News Consumer’s Guide: How Not to Get Duped
Well news fans, to mix metaphors, the ball is now squarely in your court.
“Fake news” is everywhere. For instance:
- Millions voted illegally for Hillary Clinton.
- Protesters were paid to disrupt Trump rallies.
- Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump.
- And one that turned up just days before the election: Clinton was behind the murder-suicide of an FBI agent involved in her private email debacle.
That’s just a partial list of “stories.” All unequivocally false.
And now, there’s a “fake news” story with real-life consequences: a 28-year-old man fired an assault rifle inside a DC pizzeria recently after reading an outlandish story linking the restaurant and (why not?) Clinton to a child sex-trafficking ring.
There is nothing new about “fake news.” What is different today are the vast social media networks that allow all information — minor or major — to zip around the internet in nanoseconds without regard to truth or importance.
The proliferation of news consumption on social media means Americans are dealing with a firehose of information with little curation or verification. By age 18, according to a 2015 study by the Media Insight Project, 88 percent of millennials get news regularly from Facebook and other social media. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly half of all adults get their news from Facebook, which is currently struggling with how to handle the thorny issue of vetting fake news without violating First Amendment rights.
All of this means that when it comes to determining fact from fake and understanding how one’s own biases affect how news is accessed, processed and shared, the onus in today’s unfiltered media world is irrevocably on the news consumer.
The days when the mainstream news media were trusted gatekeepers who only published or aired deeply reported stories are long over. Each of us must act as our own editor, adopting the skills and taking the time (yes) to determine the real deal. One of the key newsroom axioms to adopt: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” In other words, the more you are inclined to believe something, the more you should be skeptical.
The failure to do this is why, no matter how rigorously mainstream news outlets fact-check false stories or scrutinize Donald Trump’s statements, it often doesn’t matter. Liberals and conservatives believe what they want no matter how far-fetched. It’s known as confirmation bias. People search out information that confirms or reinforces what they already think. All too often, they are not open to information that should cause them to question those beliefs.
Research shows that when people are confronted with information that contradicts what they believe, our capacity to reason often shuts down! In 2008, I wrote about confirmation bias for NPR. Nothing has changed. In fact, Americans have gotten more entrenched in their beliefs and their unwillingness to absorb information that contradicts or complicates their beliefs:
Philo Wasburn, a Purdue University sociology professor who co-wrote a book on media bias, knows this well. He told me (in 2008) that research going back to the 1960s shows how difficult, if not impossible, it is to change people’s central core beliefs.
“When people are really committed to some ideological position, especially with politics, even if you present them with empirical evidence that supports the opposite of what they believe, they will reject it,” said Wasburn. “Core beliefs are very, very resistant to change.”
There already are efforts underway to educate the next generation on how to navigate news. The News Literacy Projectis a nonprofit dedicated to educating students in middle and high school on how to accurately sniff out the truth. The Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University works around the world providing tools to develop smarter news consumers.
The need for such education is clear.
A recent Stanford University study found that 82 percent of middle schoolers did not know the difference between a real news story and an ad that clearly stated it was “sponsored content,” basically unedited advertising.
Those results are no surprise to the eight-person team at the News Literacy Project. Alan Miller, a Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative reporter, started it in 2008 after leaving the newsroom to teach teens critical thinking skills. Beginning with schools in New York City and around Washington, DC, the project has expanded to Chicago and Houston. In one New York City school, high school seniors didn’t know Osama bin Laden was dead or that US forces had killed him, according to Miller.
“Students need to be able to understand newsworthiness, sourcing, documentation, fundamental fairness and the aspiration of minimizing bias in a dispassionate search for truth,” wrote Miller in a journal article for the National Council of Social Studies. “They also need to be familiar with concepts of transparency and accountability.”
This is our moment.
— ALAN MILLER, THE NEWS LITERACY PROJECT
After a presidential election in which “fake news” played such a prominent role, the need for news literacy has never been greater.
“The nature of the presidential campaign combined with the recent disclosures of the prevalence and power of ‘fake news’ have underscored the urgency of teaching news literacy to the next generation,” said Miller. “I wish I could say I was prescient and knew how great the need would be eight years later. But as a prospective donor said, ‘The Zeitgeist has come to you.’ This is our moment.”
In eight years, Miller’s project had worked with several hundred educators and 25,000 students. To dramatically extend its reach nationally, the project in May launched the checkologyTM virtual classroom, a cutting-edge resource that teaches the core skills and concepts for making sense of news and information.
“As many as 675 educators in 41 states and Washington, DC have already registered to use it with more than 62,000 students,” said Miller. “We expect those numbers to grow exponentially.”
While baby boomers now miss the days when CBS’ Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America, the problem with “fake news” isn’t going away any time soon. Buzzfeed, which has been a leader in unmasking fake news under the brilliant media whiz Craig Silverman, released a Dec. 6 study showing most Americans who see “fake news” believe it.
So what can you do?
Slow down. Don’t reflexively pass on something. Start by always employing critical thinking skills. Be skeptical, not cynical. Expect to be fooled. Be vigilant. Don’t make sweeping generalizations. Examine news stories on a case-by-case basis.
A savvy news consumer’s responsibility is to learn how to discern credible information from opinion, sponsored content, “fake news,” viral rumors, clickbait, doctored videos or images and plain old political propaganda. Here are some tips on how:
1. Consider the source.
- Is it a site you are familiar with? If not, check the URL. Watch out for URLs with .co added to what looks like a mainstream news site. For example, many have been fooled by a site that looks like it’s ABC News but it’s not: abcnews.com.co
- Also watch for sites that end in “lo” like Newslo. “These sites take pieces of accurate information and then packaging that information with other false or misleading “facts” (sometimes for the purposes of satire or comedy),” according to Merrimack College Professor Melissa Zimdars, who has made a specialty of studying “fake news.”
- Read the “About Us” section. Does it seem credible? It too may be made up.
- Is there a way to contact the news organization?
- Does it have a link to its editorial standards? Like PBS does.
- How credible does the website look? Is it screaming ALL-CAPS? Are there distracting gizmos for you to click on and win $10,000? Exit, immediately.
2. Read beyond the headlines.
Too often we read an outrageous headline that confirms our biases and quickly pass it on. Don’t. Read deeper into the story and ask:
- How many sources are there? Is there documentation or links to back up the claim? Could you independently verify the contents? In most mainstream media stories, people are quoted by name, title and where they work (although sometimes they are quoted anonymously), and there are links to reports or court documents.
- Search the names of people, places or titles in a story. For example, the false story about Clinton being behind an FBI agent’s murder-suicide, said it took place in Walkerville, Maryland. There is no such place. There is a WalkerSville. Tricky.
- Check out a far-fetched quote by copying and pasting it into a search engine. Anyone else have that?
- Check out the author’s name. Search it or click on it. Has he or she written anything else? Is it credible?
- Is there any context included in the story? Does it seem fair? Are there opposing points of view?
- Drill down to find out who is behind the site —especially if it’s a contentious issue.
3. Check the date.
Too many times, a story is recycled with a new exaggerated headline. You’d be surprised how many times people die. In July, I got an email that famous journalist Helen Thomas had died. I started to forward it but something didn’t seem right. Why? She had died three years ago.
4. Double check suspicious photos.
This is fairly easy to do by right-clicking on a image and the doing a Google search. Photos of Hillary Clinton stumbling back in February were recycled closer to the election to give the impression she was sick.
Several other helpful sites can assist:
5. Check your biases.
Know your own biases. Try taking Harvard University’s Project Implicit bias test.
6. Learn from a wide variety of sources.
- If you lean left, watch Fox News, read the Wall Street Journaleditorial page, Weekly Standard, National Review and Reasonmagazine. Be aware and skeptical of what’s being said on Alex Jones, Rush Limbaugh and Breitbart.
- If you lean right, tune in Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. Pay attention to Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! While the left doesn’t appear to have as many well-established (and popular) conspiracy-theory, faux-news peddlers, the same goes for what you might hear on the other side. Be skeptical: If it sounds too good to be true, it bears checking out.
- Or watch more middle-of-the-road news on PBS’ NewsHour. Listen to NPR.
- Check out Media Matters, which monitors conservative media and the Media Research Center, which monitors the mainstream media.
If you walk away with one useful piece of information, always ask this question: How do you know that?
Do it all with a healthy skepticism. Every story you agree with isn’t necessarily so. Every story you disagree with is not necessarily biased either. Be open to views you don’t agree with.
Verify, verify, verify. And keep honing your skills.
- The News Literacy Project’s How to Spot Fake News
- Merrimack College Professor Melissa Zimdars’ “False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical ‘News’ Sources”
- Factcheck.org’s How to Spot Fake News
- Craig Silverman’s Five Telltale Signs of an Online Hoax
- First Draft News.com provides an excellent guide to navigating the news online.
Turn left…on Main Street.September 14, 2015
Bill Moyers & Michael Winship:
“The progressive agenda isn’t ‘left wing.’ The progressive agenda is America’s story — from ending slavery to ending segregation to establishing a woman’s right to vote to Social Security, the right to organize, and the fight for fair pay and against income inequality. Strip those from our history and you might as well contract America out to the US Chamber of Commerce the National Association of Manufacturers, and Karl Rove, Inc.”