A Car Wash for Souls

Vintage car wash sign, shaped something like a cross

Photo: iStock

[Also published at Huff Post.] I had Christianity all wrong — I thought Jesus didn’t want you to sin.

Yes, if you did sin, He would forgive you. But the baseline was, Jesus was anti-sin.

Well now Christian supporters of Roy Moore and Donald Trump have shown me the error of my ways.

It turns out His forgiveness isn’t an exception — it’s a license.

Stalking little girls? P***y-grabbing? Do it! All you have to do is show up in church of a Sunday, and you are good to go, Monday through Saturday.

Sin-sin-sin-sin-sin-sin-“I love you, Jesus!”-sin-sin-sin-sin-sin-sin.

Defending Roy Moore, Pastor Mark Burns explained it to Joy Reid Saturday morning: “Morality isn’t the only quality that makes a good leader.” Even King David, he explained, had been quite a sinner, and Jesus was the only perfect man ever to walk the Earth.

And Jesus’ job is to forgive the rest of us.

I feel so stupid for not getting how this really works — and how you can work it.

The good news is, this revelation has led me to a new business idea — and I’ve been checking out the Prosperity Gospel, too, so I’m sure I’m on the right track here.

I’m calling it the Car Wash for Souls™.

Check it out. You see, it’s great that all this sinning is allowed, but there’s no need to make it so inconvenient. In the Car Wash for Souls™, it’s all right there for you.

As you enter, they’ll stick a drink in your hand and a pretty girl in your lap. And just like that, you’re off, working through all the sins you can ask Jesus to eat: lust, intemperance, lying, cheating, stealing — you name it.

There’ll even be some you don’t want to name. We’ll call the really embarrassing ones Mystery Sins™. They’ll happen in a dark room, and no one ever has to know.

But the kicker comes at the last stop on your way out: We’ll have a pastor right there to forgive you! Won’t take a minute; he can do it while you pay.

It can’t miss.

And if it does, well sorry, investors, and I love you, Jesus!

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Yes, Judge What Happened In Charlottesville — And Then What?

Confederate flag photo illustration

AK Rockefeller, Foter.com

[Also published at Huffington Post.] We have to call out horrors like what happened yesterday, and there’s value in doing it: to make it clear what America is and what it cannot be.

At the same time, I think there’s also a risk in having such obvious villains as Nazis and KKK members to point to, because it’s so easy to denounce them, feel good about ourselves, and move on.

In day-to-day life, people don’t wear swastikas. Almost no one thinks of themselves as a bigot. But we all have at least some fear or hatred of others within us. If we refuse to see it, we create an internal darkness similar to the one that allows bigotry to grow in society as a whole.

And whatever’s going on inside each of us, it’s what each of us does that matters. Judging others just distracts us from what matters.

Warning, it’s about to look like I’m going to blame the other party, feel good, and move on ― if you think that, please read on to, “And we Democrats…”

Right now it matters that Republican leaders don’t just make stronger statements than Trump’s ― an easy test to pass ― but that they stop acting to enable bigotry. They do that not just by supporting Trump’s bigoted policies, but by advancing their own, like their longstanding efforts to suppress the minority vote under the pretense of stopping nearly nonexistent voter fraud.

And individual Republicans, whatever they feel in their hearts, need to stop enabling a Republican Party that has welcomed racists since the mid-1960s. The Nixon campaign designed the Southern Strategy, and the party kept on using it, even after former GOP chair Ken Mehlman apologized for it. Under the Southern Strategy, explicit racial slurs were replaced with code phrases like “states rights,” “welfare cheats,” and “law and order.” The only difference with Trump is that he has dropped the veil that had been hiding the naked racism.

And we Democrats should be careful of using Republican bigotry as a free pass. Yes, our party has been on the right side of civil rights since the ’60s. I’m not suggesting a false equivalence. But there are issues like affordable housing, for example, in which many liberals support zoning regulations that have the effect of keeping neighborhoods segregated, without anyone having to look too hard at how it happens.

The challenge is to see clearly, especially when it’s uncomfortable ― it’s so much easier to see where other people are falling short ― and more importantly, to do things that make a difference.

So of course we have to call out horrors like Charlottesville. But we also have to be able to talk openly and usefully among ourselves, when there isn’t such obvious evil to decry, and find ways to change things that need to change. I think that means avoiding the distracting temptation to judge each other ― at worst, getting into ever-escalating moral purity contests ― and it also means avoiding the temptation to judge ourselves.

See ourselves, yes. But too often judgment is like a heat sink ― energy that could be used for change just gets converted to guilt, and lost.

None of us is morally pure. But each of us, in all our impurity, can make things better.

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Arguing Over Their New Slogan Is Why Democrats Lose

Man straightening tie photo illustration

iStock

Democrats, being Democrats, are having a big argument right now about their new slogan, “A Better Deal.”

Is it on point? Does it suck? What do the polls say?

It doesn’t freaking matter.

Quick, now. What was Barack Obama’s slogan in 2012? George W. Bush’s in 2000 and 2004? Bill Clinton’s in ’92 and ’96?

You don’t remember. And it doesn’t matter.

Ah, but I bet you think you remember the Obama ‘08 slogan. “Hope and Change,” right? Actually he had at least four: “Hope,” Change,” “Change We Can Believe In,” and “Change We Need.”* They didn’t matter — until Obama made them matter.

You know what else doesn’t matter? Logos. Obama didn’t even like his now-iconic ’08 logo when he first saw it.

“It’ll do,” he said. And he was right. So would have lots of others.

People don’t vote for slogans. They don’t vote for logos. They vote for strong leaders who share their values.

Who fights over a slogan? Not leaders.

Fighting over the slogan — and all the related fussing over polls, focus groups, policy details — only signals voters that Democrats are obsessed with little stuff. Leaders are not obsessed with little stuff.

Leaders are focused on their vision of a better future, and they have the personal presence to inspire us with that vision.

It’s in that presence that leaders make their case. Democrats trying to figure out how to win need to stop trying to figure it out. They need to discover the world below their necks.

Then they might stumble across why Kentucky Congressional candidate Amy McGrath has exploded onto the national stage with her first campaign commercial. Holy smokes, there’s a leader.

Quick quiz: What’s her slogan?

Answer: Who cares?

*Want more presidential campaign slogan trivia? Here’s a list.

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How Kellyanne Conway Won Her Debate With CNN’s Brian Stelter — Despite Being Wrong About Everything

[Also published at Huffington Post.] White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and “Reliable Sources” host Brian Stelter had a widely anticipated debate Sunday about the fairness of media coverage of the Trump administration. On every point that came up, Stelter exposed Conway as, at best, misleading.

And yet to some viewers, she was the clear winner.

Tweet by David Martosko: "Watching @KellyAnnPolls absolutely clobber @BrianStelter this morning. Brutal. He's absolutely tied in knots."

How? Stelter and Conway were playing entirely different games.

For Conway, the audience was President Trump and the 36 percent of Americans who still trust him. Speaking past Stelter and connecting with them, she followed the rules of a game defined back in the 60s by the media consultants of the 1968 Nixon for President campaign.

One of them was the eventual founder of Fox News, Roger Ailes. Here’s Ailes in 1970, explaining why Nixon was seen to have lost his 1960 TV debate with John F. Kennedy despite many people believing he had won on the merits:

I think that the lighting was bad. It was experimental at best and sloppily done. His makeup was bad. I think he was tired–and this may have shown in his reaction and response.

I think that before the debates, John Kennedy spent the entire day briefing himself and relaxing, concentrating on the TV encounter.

Mr. Nixon did not do that. He walked in and handled it as if it were any other telecast.

Mr. Nixon, in a sense, stuck to the old school of debating, looking at Mr. Kennedy. But Mr. Kennedy looked at the camera, because he was essentially talking not to his opponent but to the people at home, and he was able to establish a kind of communication between himself and the home viewer. [Emphasis added.]

Ailes, along with other media and advertising experts, coached Nixon to be far more effective on TV for his winning 1968 campaign, and during his time in the White House.

The rules they defined still apply, as you can see by analyzing the video of the Stelter-Conway interview. Let’s start with the splash frame from CNN.com:

Kelly Ann Conway on CNN

Conway looks happy, relaxed, and confident, is well lit by studio lighting, and is wearing red, a power color.

Now let’s look at her in split screen with Stelter:

Brian Stelter & Kelly Ann Conway on CNN

Oh oh. Just seconds in, and Stelter’s losing already.

How do we know? Let’s count the ways.

  1. Kelly is being shot straight on, so she can make direct eye contact through the camera with the viewer. Meanwhile Stelter is being shot from slightly above, so he has to look up. This unavoidably signals submissiveness, no matter what he’s saying. Our brains can’t help but make the unconscious connection: small, less powerful people look up at bigger, more powerful people.
  2. Stelter isn’t as well lit. Compared to Conway, he looks washed out. She, meanwhile, is being sculpted by highlights and eyelights.
  3. He’s wearing more muted colors, dominated by grey.
  4. He appears to be outside, in some random grassy environment (he was in Tucson, on the first day of a family vacation, according to his Twitter feed.) It feels like he’s both literally and symbolically on the outside, while she’s on the inside, in the impressive environment of a CNN studio.
  5. As you play the video, you’ll hear that his sound is weaker as well — and occasional bird tweets don’t help.

And so it goes throughout the interview. As Stelter tries to pin Conway down on one misdirection after another, she just moves blithely on to the next. And each of his sallies feels, I’m sorry to say, “low energy.” At pains to preserve the standards of civil discourse, he repeatedly reassures her of his respect, while she turns her responses into digs at him and CNN.

One example among many:

Stelter: “The scandals are about the president’s lies. About voter fraud, about wire-tapping, his repeated lies about those issues. That’s the scandal.”

Conway: “He doesn’t think he’s lying about those issues.”

It’s OK because he doesn’t think he’s lying? On the page, Conway’s response is ridiculous. But on TV, she looks and sounds unruffled and in control.

Stelter, on the other hand, comes across as alternately tentative, frustrated, and confused:

Brian Stelter & Kelly Ann Conway on CNN

On TV, impressions are what matter much more than words — as Conway’s boss could tell you, you win by looking like you’re winning.

CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl has often told the story of how she learned this lesson from a Reagan administration official back in 1984. Here’s how she related it to Bill Moyers in a 1989 interview:

I did a piece that was-where I was quite negative, to be honest with you, about Reagan. And yet the pictures were terrific, and I thought they’d be mad at me, but they weren’t. They loved it. And the official outright said to me, “They didn’t hear you. Didn’t hear what you said. They only saw those pictures.” And what he really meant was it’s the visual impact that overrides the verbal.

And that’s what happened, yet again, here.

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America Is A Creed, Not a Tribe — And Too Few Americans Know Why That Matters

Statue of Liberty at night

0X010C via Wikimedia Commons

[Also published at Huffington Post.] Donald Trump’s recent speech in Poland sent chills down the spines of people around the world who believe in small l, small d liberal democracy. Notably this part:

We must work together to confront forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the South or the East, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are. If left unchecked, these forces will undermine our courage, sap our spirit, and weaken our will to defend ourselves and our societies.

What’s so disturbing? Many Trump supporters honestly see no problem — why shouldn’t we defend America, in partnership with our allies?

Because what Trump is describing here isn’t America. And sadly, many Americans failed to notice.

America, as patriots (including me) like to point out, is exceptional. But if some of those patriots don’t see the problem in what Trump said in Poland — and has said in other, starker, ways — then I submit they don’t understand why America is exceptional.

Because it isn’t bonds of culture, faith, and tradition that “make us who we are” — and it certainly isn’t xenophobic opposition to the South or the East, in defense of an ethnocentric West. Culture, faith, and tradition are important in all countries. But in America, they’re not essential. Those things are essential only to the nations of the past: nations that were formed from tribes.

What’s exceptional about America is that it isn’t a tribe. It’s a creed.

You’re not an American because of your blood, or the soil on which you were born, or the religion you practice. You’re an American because you believe in the American creed. That’s the essential miracle of this country.

The creed was defined in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, which its author Thomas Jefferson intended as “an expression of the American mind,” and which, as I hope we all still remember, begins with these words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

It’s why Jefferson built his first Inaugural Address to lead to this climax:

These principles [freedom of religion; freedom of the press; and freedom of person, and others] form the bright constellation, which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages, and blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment: they should be the creed of our political faith; the text of civic instruction… (Emphasis added.)

It’s why Abraham Lincoln summoned that creed anew to mark the end of the Civil War:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

It’s why Emma Lazarus wrote her sonnet for the Statue of Liberty, depicting it as a “New Colossus”: a symbol not of nationalistic conquest, like the ancient Colossus of Rhodes, but of the far greater power of democratic values:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land; Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

It’s why in 1918 William Tyler Page and the U.S. Congress sought to inspire American soldiers with “The American Creed”:

I believe in the United States of America as a government of the people, by the people, for the people; whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed; a democracy in a republic; a sovereign Nation of many sovereign States; a perfect union, one and inseparable; established upon those principles of freedom, equality, justice, and humanity for which American patriots sacrificed their lives and fortunes…

And it’s why the British poet G.K. Chesterton described America as “the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.”

In a land where religion and the state are carefully separated — for the protection of both — the creed is the basis of what has been called our civil religion.

In Poland, Trump was speaking words of ethnic nationalism. They are words that could describe many countries.

But not America.

They are the words of someone who doesn’t know what America is.

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12 Ways You Now Have To Tell Your Kids Not To Be Like The President

Mother talking to her young son

iStock

[Also published at Huffington Post.] Think of it — especially now, after Trump’s vicious, sexist tweet about Mika Brzezinski.

If you’re raising children, these are just some of the ways you now have to tell them not to be like the President of the United States:

  1. Don’t lie.
  2. Don’t cheat.
  3. Don’t be mean.
  4. Don’t be racist.
  5. Don’t disrespect women.
  6. Don’t mock disabled people.
  7. Don’t be selfish.
  8. Don’t boast about things you do, or claim credit for things you don’t do.
  9. Don’t blame your mistakes on others.
  10. Don’t drop things just because they’re hard.
  11. Don’t skip your homework and watch TV.
  12. Don’t try to fake it.

Oh, and Junior, just in case it ever needs saying: Don’t praise murderous dictators, don’t share secret intelligence with our enemies, don’t weaken our alliances, don’t do business with gangsters, don’t stiff charities, don’t set up a scam university, don’t profit from public service, and don’t attack the free press, the independent judiciary, or any of the other foundations of our democracy.

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It Isn’t Just Trump: The Roots Of Democracy’s Crisis Are Many and Deep

Tiny American flag in crowd at political rally

[Also published at Huffington Post.] I’ll soon be taking part in a panel discussion on the crisis of democracy.

In preparation, I started a list of answers to the question, “How did we get here?”

I was amazed at how fast that list grew.

Many see Donald Trump as an expression of that crisis — though some look at him and see the problem and others, the solution. But, as my list showed me so clearly, Trump doesn’t come close to being the explanation. And we need one — or more likely, many — as we try to figure out not just how we got here, but where we’re going.

So I’d like to share my list — no doubt still incomplete — and invite your thoughts. Here are some of the reasons I think democracy is in crisis.

The fight, from the founding, over what democracy is. Should the federal government be strong, as Alexander Hamilton argued, or weak, as Thomas Jefferson did? Which is more important, the freedom of the group, or of the individual? How do we balance respecting the will of the people with protecting against demagoguery and mob rule?

… And over what America is. Is the essence of America its democratic creed — as Jefferson asserted — or is it an ethnic homeland, as Andrew Jackson saw it? Under the present administration, the issue is very much alive.

Slavery and its aftermath. Although the Civil War ended in 1865, America only started to become a full democracy a century later, when African-Americans were first able to exercise the franchise in full. To this day, we live with the lingering effects of racial injustice and its twins, shame, and denial. As one example among many…

Voter suppression, supposedly justified by insignificant levels of voter fraud.

The backlash to increasing social equality. Experiments show that people value relative social status more than money. Those close to the bottom are especially afraid of letting others climb past them — one explanation for why poor people sometimes vote against their own economic interest. Others are cultural anxiety — fear of losing one’s traditional culture, independent of active prejudice against others — and outright bigotry.

The backlash to economic inequality, as wealth gains have flowed to the top while wages for the middle while working classes have stagnated. Researchers disagree, though, about how much this drove the recent election results, as compared with ethnic and cultural tensions.

The culture war, especially since the 1960’s, over moral and religious values. Although the Constitution says there can’t be an official religion in the United States, there used to be one by default — church and state only really got separated recently. And for all that liberals saw the 60’s as a time of progress, especially with the advancement of women, minorities and gay people, conservatives saw the beginning of a national decline into chaos. That bolstered their support for law and order, and, potentially, more authoritarian leadership.

The hyper-politicization of the judiciary. FDR may have started it by trying to pack the Supreme Court, but it was 1973’s Roe vs. Wade decision that made politics a litmus test for every new justice thereafter. When one side sees abortion as a civil right and the other sees it as murder, democratic compromise is hard to achieve. So people turn to alternatives, like the courts.

Terrorism, which has scared many of us into compromising democratic values in favor of security.

The abandonment of the Enlightenment and its focus on reason: on the left as well as the right, we increasingly prefer emotion and intuition, whether because of religion, new age spirituality, the self-help industry, Hollywood, or other causes. A related phenomenon is The Death of Expertise as described by author Tom Nichols: on the right and the left, we find people who seem to believe all opinions are equally valid, no matter how ill-informed.

Religious extremism, by which some claim that God’s law should outweigh any that humans create — and that they know exactly how God would vote. It has a long history in the U.S., and grew stronger through the use of media, starting with radio pioneers like Father Coughlin and continuing on TV and the internet.

Illiberal liberalism. The right has its moral absolutists, but the left does, too. Let me be clear, I don’t think it’s “political correctness run amok” to object to hateful speech. But we’ve seen some cases of speakers being silenced simply because others strongly disagreed with them. There’s a reason the First Amendment comes first: to protect democracy, we have to tolerate a lot of disagreement before shutting people down.

The weakening of institutions, including education and journalism, the two pillars that make government by an informed citizenry viable, as our founders well knew.

Uninvolved citizens, with low interest in politics, and low propensity to vote, whether because of loss of faith in the process, or lack of civics education, or…

Entertainment and consumption as opiates of the masses. We seem to be Amusing Ourselves to Death, as author Neil Postman predicted: choosing to surrender our rights and duties as citizens in exchange for endless diversion.

Entertainment industry clichés about politics and government. In movies and TV shows, it’s all corruption, full of shadowy conspiracies, and only the heroic individual can beat it. People who have worked in public service know this is far from true, but many, many Americans are sure that it is.

Scientific marketing of candidates and causes, leading to ever more partisan and divisive campaigns, which are based on pushing psychological buttons instead of making coherent policy arguments. After the birth of modern propaganda in the 1920’s, this trend really got going in the 60’s with the Kennedy and Nixon campaigns, got a big boost from Karl Rove and his data-driven targeting, went hyperbolic in the 90’s with psychologist Frank Luntz’s toxic messaging strategy for Newt Gingrich and his Republican Revolution, and is now exploiting all the tools that marketing, psychology, and technology have to offer.

Negative branding of government as a political tactic, especially starting with Reagan’s message of “government is the problem, not the solution” message.

Pork barrel politics — as well as less pork barrel politics. Pork barrel spending by Congress causes people to lose faith in the system of checks and balances. But reducing pork, say by banning earmarks, may have the unanticipated side-effect of making Congressional deal-making harder, and recalcitrance easier, by reducing the leverage leaders have over rank and file members.

Gerrymandering, which reduces incentives for compromise.

The removal of restrictions on campaign finance, along with the growth of lobbying, and the new role of billionaires as power brokers to rival the parties. These are also destructive to voters’ faith in the system.

The end of the Fairness Doctrine, making it legal to present opinion and provocation as news, and thereby possible to make huge amounts of money — a segment of media and politics became a highly profitable outrage industry.

The rise of talk radio, digital cable TV, and the internet, leading to the fragmentation of world views, the growth of the outrage industry, and greater reach for extremists.

Urbanization, which has made the rural/urban divide, now much more extreme than it was at the founding — and it was very divisive then, as the hostility between Jefferson and Hamilton showed.

The Big Sort of Americans into like-minded communities, as described by author Bill Bishop, enabled by technologies like electricity, air conditioning, and highways.

Web and social media algorithms that exacerbate the Big Sort by showing people only content that they’re likely to agree with.

Anxiety over the increasing complexity of the world, giving rise to a longing for simple solutions, and making authoritarianism more attractive.

Fake news via scam websites, social media, and organized campaigns, enabled by the near-zero cost of producing and distributing counterfeit information, and the difficulty many of us have detecting it.

Postmodern philosophy going mainstream, migrating from the academic theory to playbook. We now see some political operatives explicitly arguing that reality is whatever we say it is.

What else?

This post was prepared in preparation for the panel discussion “Is There Hope for Democracy?” at the Irvine Auditorium in Monterey, California, on May 17, 2017.

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A Prison Of Lies: How Misinformation Became a Multi-Billion Dollar Industry and Broke Democracy

Desktop printer printing money

iStock

[Also published at Huffington Post.] Imagine if counterfeiting suddenly became legal. Say we asked people not to do it — but there would be no penalty if they did.

What would happen?

Simple: There would be an explosion of fake money. If people could buy things with currency worth nothing more than paper and some ink, many would, of course, do just that. Crooks would print up more and more counterfeit bills, which would start to take over from real money.

A venerable principle of economics explains why this happens. It’s named Gresham’s Law, after 16th century financier Sir Thomas Gresham.

The short version: Since sound money is expensive, and bad money is cheap, bad money proliferates and takes over the economy.

More recently, Gresham’s Law has been extended to information: Bad information drives out good, and for similar reasons.

In America in recent decades, an industry of information counterfeiters has sprung up, and it’s making a few, unprincipled people very rich, at the expense of everyone else.

And at the expense of democracy.

Bad money threatens the free market. But bad information threatens freedom itself. That’s because a vote is only as good as the information it’s based on. If your choices are based on illusions, what are they really worth?

Much of our population now votes, and makes other crucial decisions, based on bad information. Much of what they think they know about the world is untrue.

In effect, they live in a prison of lies, one whose walls they can’t even see.

When Everything You Know Is Wrong

  1. Our military is weak.
  2. Unemployment is rising.
  3. The stock market is falling.
  4. The deficit is exploding.
  5. Voter fraud is rampant.
  6. Crime is out of control.
  7. Many of the criminals are immigrants, flooding through our porous borders to rape and murder innocent Americans.
  8. Terrorists are coming the same way.

Given these terrifying facts, is it any wonder that Americans voted in 2016 for a candidate who promised to save us?

How could it have gone any other way? Hillary Clinton pledged to continue and build on the legacy of Barack Obama. How could any sensible person — any patriot — vote for that?

Except none of those “facts” was true. The voters who believed them were voting for and against illusions.

Think about what that means: the effect was the same as falsifying ballots. It’s just that the falsification happened before the vote instead of after.

Put another way, it’s like voters had a choice between door number 1 and door number 2, but for many of them, the numbers had been switched: door 1 was actually door 2, and vice versa.

Certainly there were people who voted for Donald Trump based on a more or less accurate picture of reality. But huge numbers — far more than were needed to swing the election — were just plain wrong about the issues on which they based their votes.

Let’s take another look at the “facts” these voters believed in.

  1. According to a February, 2016 Gallup poll, only 49 percent of Americans thought the United States was the world’s top military power. In fact, as of 2016, the military budget of the United States was almost as high as those of the next 14 highest-spending countries — added together. The U.S. accounted for one-third of all the military spending in the world.
  2. According to a December, 2016 Public Policy Polling survey, 67% of Trump voters believed unemployment had increased during the Obama administration, and only 20 percent thought it had decreased. In fact, it had been cut in half, falling from more than 10 percent to below five percent. Some would argue that unemployment was actually worse than it looked, because the standard unemployment measure, known as U-3, doesn’t take into account people who have given up looking for work or who are marginally employed, such as those who have been forced to take part-time jobs. But the measure that does take them into account, U-6, had also fallen dramatically, from just over 17 percent to just over nine percent.
  3. The same PPP poll found that 60 percent of Trump voters thought the stock market had gone down under Obama. In fact, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was almost two and a half times higher at the end of Obama’s two terms than it was at the beginning. From the end of the Bush era slide, on March 6, 2009, the Dow more than tripled.
  4. Although the deficit had already been cut nearly in half by 2013, only 29 percent of Americans believed it was going down, and only 12 percent of Republicans did, according to a Pew poll at the end of that year.
  5. As of August, 2016, 52 percent of Republicans believed voter fraud was a serious problem, according to a Gallup poll. In fact, no credible study has ever found anything but minuscule levels of voter fraud.
Graph of U.S. violent crime showing steep downward trend since 1990

Graph by Statistica based on FBI data

Imagine if counterfeiting suddenly became legal. Say we asked people not to do it — but there would be no penalty if they did.

What would happen?

Simple: There would be an explosion of fake money. If people could buy things with currency worth nothing more than paper and some ink, many would, of course, do just that. Crooks would print up more and more counterfeit bills, which would start to take over from real money.

A venerable principle of economics explains why this happens. It’s named Gresham’s Law, after 16th century financier Sir Thomas Gresham.

The short version: Since sound money is expensive, and bad money is cheap, bad money proliferates and takes over the economy.

More recently, Gresham’s Law has been extended to information: Bad information drives out good, and for similar reasons.

In America in recent decades, an industry of information counterfeiters has sprung up, and it’s making a few, unprincipled people very rich, at the expense of everyone else.

And at the expense of democracy.

Bad money threatens the free market. But bad information threatens freedom itself. That’s because a vote is only as good as the information it’s based on. If your choices are based on illusions, what are they really worth?

Much of our population now votes, and makes other crucial decisions, based on bad information. Much of what they think they know about the world is untrue.

In effect, they live in a prison of lies, one whose walls they can’t even see.

When Everything You Know Is Wrong

  1. Our military is weak.
  2. Unemployment is rising.
  3. The stock market is falling.
  4. The deficit is exploding.
  5. Voter fraud is rampant.
  6. Crime is out of control.
  7. Many of the criminals are immigrants, flooding through our porous borders to rape and murder innocent Americans.
  8. Terrorists are coming the same way.

Given these terrifying facts, is it any wonder that Americans voted in 2016 for a candidate who promised to save us?

How could it have gone any other way? Hillary Clinton pledged to continue and build on the legacy of Barack Obama. How could any sensible person — any patriot — vote for that?

Except none of those “facts” was true. The voters who believed them were voting for and against illusions.

Think about what that means: the effect was the same as falsifying ballots. It’s just that the falsification happened before the vote instead of after.

Put another way, it’s like voters had a choice between door number 1 and door number 2, but for many of them, the numbers had been switched: door 1 was actually door 2, and vice versa.

Certainly there were people who voted for Donald Trump based on a more or less accurate picture of reality. But huge numbers — far more than were needed to swing the election — were just plain wrong about the issues on which they based their votes.

Let’s take another look at the “facts” these voters believed in.

  1. According to a February, 2016 Gallup poll, only 49 percent of Americans thought the United States was the world’s top military power. In fact, as of 2016, the military budget of the United States was almost as high as those of the next 14 highest-spending countries — added together. The U.S. accounted for one-third of all the military spending in the world.
  2. According to a December, 2016 Public Policy Polling survey, 67% of Trump voters believed unemployment had increased during the Obama administration, and only 20 percent thought it had decreased. In fact, it had been cut in half, falling from more than 10 percent to below five percent. Some would argue that unemployment was actually worse than it looked, because the standard unemployment measure, known as U-3, doesn’t take into account people who have given up looking for work or who are marginally employed, such as those who have been forced to take part-time jobs. But the measure that does take them into account, U-6, had also fallen dramatically, from just over 17 percent to just over nine percent.
  3. The same PPP poll found that 60 percent of Trump voters thought the stock market had gone down under Obama. In fact, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was almost two and a half times higher at the end of Obama’s two terms than it was at the beginning. From the end of the Bush era slide, on March 6, 2009, the Dow more than tripled.
  4. Although the deficit had already been cut nearly in half by 2013, only 29 percent of Americans believed it was going down, and only 12 percent of Republicans did, according to a Pew poll at the end of that year.
  5. As of August, 2016, 52 percent of Republicans believed voter fraud was a serious problem, according to a Gallup poll. In fact, no credible study has ever found anything but minuscule levels of voter fraud.
Graphs showing the difference between popular beliefs and correct facts on a range of topics

Graphs by the author based on sources noted

These are just some examples from the alt reality many Americans now inhabit. Among other false but popular beliefs that influenced voters in the 2016 election: Obama was a Kenyan born Muslim who was going to take away all our guns, FEMA planned concentration camps for conservatives, the U.S. military was going to invade Texas, and Hillary was the leader of a sex slavery ring run out of a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant.

Since the election, most explanations of how Trump won it have focused on factors that might have accounted for, at most, a few percentage points each in state-by-state vote totals: interference by Russia and Wikileaks, Hillary’s emails and/or the media’s obsession with them, mistakes by Hillary’s campaign, disruptive comments by FBI Director James Comey, or the Democratic Party being too far right, too far left, or too disconnected from the white working class.

Some or all of these likely had an influence. But remember, Hillary lost by less than 78,000 votes [update: this replaces the earlier estimate of several hundred thousand votes with the final result] in three battleground states, while winning the popular vote overall.

Whatever the causes, her defeat was razor thin.

Now look again at the percentages in my eight examples: all the margins are in the tens of percentage points, and many represent strong majorities of the relevant voters.

That means that any of the most popular explanations for the election result shrinks to insignificance when compared with this one:

The misinformation industry threw our election.

How Lying Became a Multi-Billion Dollar Business

Believe it or not, there was a time when self-described journalists wouldn’t have been allowed to just make stuff up all day long without presenting opposing viewpoints. That time was before 1987, when the federal Fairness Doctrine was eliminated.

The Fairness Doctrine was a policy of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted in 1949. It required broadcasters both to present important and controversial topics, and provide time for opposing viewpoints.

It was based on the idea that the public owned the airwaves. Broadcasters had licenses to use this public property, but not to abuse its owners by misleading them.

But that rule went away in 1987, as part of deregulation under the Reagan administration. Conservatives thought the Fairness Doctrine impinged on free speech, and that free market competition would take care of fairness.

Unfortunately, the effect was like removing all guarantees behind a currency.

Peddlers of information were now free to sell fiction as fact, like counterfeiters printing their own money. And just like counterfeit money, misinformation is really cheap to produce, and has a huge market.

Emotion sells. If you’re not required to tell the truth, you can just make up addictively provocative stuff, all day long. And since you don’t need to put any time or money into actual reporting or fact-checking, it costs you next to nothing to churn it out and rack up the revenues.

And what do you know, after 1987 right wing talk became the top commercial talk radio format in the U.S. Further deregulation made the format particularly lucrative, by allowing the formation of conglomerates like Clear Channel. They could afford to pay big syndication fees to the most popular hosts, led for many years by Rush Limbaugh, who got very rich by making his listeners very angry. Not surprisingly, Rush inspired imitators: Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Alex Jones, Michael Savage, Mark Levin, and many more.

Rush Limbaugh

Rush Limbaugh photo by Icolas Shayko (Creative Commons via Wikimedia)

TV’s turn had to wait for the arrival of digital cable and satellite technologies, which brought a proliferation of channels, along with the need to fill them with content. That enabled Rupert Murdoch’s 1996 creation of Fox News, which quickly began its rise to number one among basic cable channels.

As with right wing talk radio, Fox isn’t really in the news business, but a news-like form of the entertainment business. Despite its (possibly deliberately) ironic slogan of “Fair and Balanced,” what Fox sells is sensation, with objective information playing a distinctly secondary role.

There are legitimate reporters at Fox. But the network’s cash cows are the heavily biased, highly provocative opinion shows, like Fox and Friends, Hannity, and the industry-leading O’Reilly Factor.

New technologies also enabled the right-wing web. The introduction of the graphical Mosaic browser in 1993, followed by easy site-building tools and the rise of cheap bandwidth, meant almost anyone could be a publisher. Soon enough, that came to include hot button-pushing “news” sites, from the Drudge Report, to InfoWars, to WorldNet Daily, to Breitbart, to who knows how many more.

There was money in all of it — a lot of money.

In 2016, Forbes magazine ranked Rush Limbaugh the world’s 10th highest-paid celebrity, with an estimated income of $79 million. His net worth is variously estimated at between $350 million and $500 million.

Fox News’ 2015 revenue was projected at $2.3 billion, and the 2016 number will no doubt turn out to have been even higher, given that Fox broke ratings records on the back of the most attention-grabbing election campaign ever. Forbes estimates the net worth of Rupert Murdoch, who also owns other major media properties, at $13 billion.

In 2012, Business Insider’s Henry Blodget estimated that the Drudge Report was earning $50,000 a day, and that founder Matt Drudge must be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Blodget made this startling comparison:

In short, the Drudge Report is almost as big a digital media property as The New York Times.

That’s absolutely staggering.

Why?

Because The New York Times is produced by ~1,200 journalists. The Drudge Report is produced by one.

Blodget is exaggerating a bit here: earlier in his article he estimates the total Drudge staff at “maybe three.”

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Here’s the Scam That Makes Conservatives Believe the Mainstream Media Is Lying

[Also published at Huffington Post.] 

Recently a Facebook friend shared this outrage-inducing headline: BREAKING: Massive Illegal Immigrant Welfare Fraud Discovered.

My first reaction was, “Obviously fake news.” The source was something called WorldNewsPolitics.com, a website with no masthead, no physical address, and a name that doesn’t quite make sense.

But I took the trouble to check the story out, and I discovered that in fact it was more insidious than fake news: it’s an extremely misleading report of something that actually happened.

It’s a scam, built on just the barest amount of accuracy needed to survive a quick click-through. The goal is to fool the unwary into believing “This is truth the mainstream media is trying to keep from me.”

Here’s how it works, step by step.

  1. If you go to the “Immigrant Welfare Fraud” story, you’ll find it begins with this:

The Washington Free Beacon is reporting a breaking story that will have every American taxpayer furious. The Social Security Administration conducted a routine audit and discovered it paid $1 billion in benefits to individuals who did not have a Social Security Number (SSN).

Sounds outrageous, right? Why haven’t you heard of this in the mainstream media — are they trying to hide it? If you do a web search, what do you know? You get pages and pages of results — but only on right-wing sites.

Here’s an excerpt from what I found on Google:

Welfare fraud Google results

Google search results

Proof! Only the right-wing media tells you the truth, while the lying MSM covers it up!

Except…

  1. As you can see from the WordNewsPolitics story’s first few words, it’s actually a rewrite of an item from the Washington Free Beacon, a slightly more respectable publication — for example, you can find out who the Beacon’s editors and writers are. If you go to the Beacon’s story, you’ll discover that it’s a little less inflammatory, though still dramatic:

Feds Paid $1 Billion in Social Security Benefits to Individuals Without a SSN

Based on the Beacon’s headline, we don’t know, despite what WorldNewsPolitics asserts, that these individuals were illegal immigrants, and we don’t know they committed welfare fraud. We’re only told that the federal government paid social security benefits to some people who didn’t have social security numbers. And in fact if we read the story, we find that we don’t even know that. All we know is that the numbers weren’t on file.

  1. From the Beacon story, we can click a link to the original source of the information: the Social Security Administration itself, which recently released an audit of its own practices. That audit found that not $1 billion but about $853 million (which the Beacon rounds up to $1 billion) was paid out to people “who do not have a social security number in the Social Security Administration’s payment records.” And it was paid out not all at once but over a period of 12 years, between 2004 and 2016.
  2. Still, $853 million sounds like a lot of money. But how much is it in context?

Well, I did the math, using figures from ssa.gov for the years in question (see below*). Hundreds of billions of dollars in social security benefits are paid out every year. If $853 million of them may have been misdirected — and that is not clear, since all we know is that the SSNs weren’t on file — it would amount to an error rate of less than 1/100 of one percent.

Of course it would be better to have no errors at all. But given how unlikely it is that any massive system will ever have an error rate of zero, 1/100 of one percent doesn’t seem quite so bad.

5. Now let’s ask ourselves how we know about all this. Is it the result of hard-hitting investigative work by the right-wing media?

No, we know because the government audited itself and transparently reported the results. This is what we want to see the government doing — searching for waste and trying to eliminate it.

We’re a long way from “Massive Illegal Immigrant Welfare Fraud,” aren’t we?

6. But wait, there’s more. Misleading stories like this one appear daily, and spread almost instantaneously, with very similar versions showing up all over the right wing media.

That’s no accident. There’s a system in place for making it happen, like sending marching orders to a waiting army.

To see how that works, let’s look in detail at the link to the Washington Free Beacon story that we found in the WorldNewsPolitics story:

http://freebeacon.com/issues/feds-paid-1-billion-social-security-benefits-individuals-without-ssn/?utm_source=Freedom+Mail&utm_campaign=f181a5137d-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2017_02_21&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b5e6e0e9ea-f181a5137d-46179017

In particular, notice the part of the url beginning with this:

?utm_source=Freedom+Mail

This is what’s known as a campaign tag. It and other tags that follow it tell us that the source of this link was an email campaign from “Freedom Mail.” I’m guessing that refers to this conservative email list, identified in 2010 by Ben Smith of Politico:

…a secret (which strikes me as misguided, but harmless) list of center-right foreign policy writers and thinkers called Freedom Mail.

Whether or not this actually is the same Freedom Mail as the one behind the “illegal immigrant welfare fraud” campaign, the mechanism is the same across multiple interest groups and their email lists. Operatives comb the news each day for stories they can exaggerate, distort, and blast out to eager media outlets who are more interested in ideology than truth.

The supposed immigrant crime wave in Sweden? Congressional town hall protesters supposedly being paid?

Products of the same system.

It’s the system that gives right-wing media consumers much of their “news” every day. It explains why their angry social media posts and forum comments tend to contain the same talking points, and why those comments are so badly misinformed.

Illustration showing how false news spreads

Illustration by the author

This is not to say there’s no one on the left pushing stories, many of which are also biased, though all such activity on the left is dwarfed by what’s happening on the right.

But legitimate journalists won’t report anything just because it shows up in an email from an advocacy group. The mainstream media checks facts — that’s what “mainstream” means.

The trouble is there’s a whole industry of right-wing media outlets, ranging from biased to outright fake, who are quite happy to give the fact-checking a pass.

And now you know why right-wingers keep seeing stories in right-wing media that they don’t find in the mainstream media.

It isn’t because the MSM is trying hide the truth.

It’s because those stories are crap.

And the people who believe them? They’re being played for suckers.

___________________

* Using figures from the Social Security Administration’s annual Fast Facts reports:

Total payments, 2004 – 2016: $9,100,155,400,000

Possibly misdirected payments: $853,000,000

Possibly misdirected payments, percentage: .0094%

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7 Tips for Telling Real News from Fake

Photo of people in a waiting room reading various news sources.

Photo: iStock

[Also published at Huffington Post.] I’ve been hearing a lot lately from people who feel overwhelmed by all the drastically different news narratives fighting for their attention — especially, of course, the ones about Donald Trump.

Real news? Fake news? How do you tell the difference?

Here’s a seven-point checklist of the most essential things to know.

1. Be skeptical. There’s an old saying in journalism: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Reporters are supposed to look hard at what they think they know, and so should their audience. Reputable news outlets “show their work,” so you can see how they came to their conclusions. Are the sources solid? Does the logic makes sense? (More on this below.)

2. If the story is sensational, be more skeptical. Amazing things are amazing for a reason: they don’t happen very often. There are a lot more amazing stories in the world — because they make money — than there are amazing things that actually happened. This is why serious news sources tend to be less exciting to read than tabloids are. Memorize or bookmark these fact-checking sites:

3. If the story reinforces what you already believe, be more skeptical. We all suffer from confirmation bias, the tendency to accept information that supports our beliefs, and ignore or reject information that doesn’t. If you want accurate information instead of just flattery, you’re going to have to fight your own confirmation bias. And please, don’t fall into the trap of assuming that all news you don’t like is “fake.” (More on this below, too.)

4. Check the sources. The sources of a story are like the foundation of a building: if they’re not solid, the whole thing is likely to collapse. Sources should be objective and as close to the original information as possible. So, for example, a respected, independent scientific research organization is more credible than a partisan think tank, and still more credible than a random person with an opinion.

There should be more than one source, unless the story is an interview or there is something exceptional about what this source has to say. Here’s part of the Reuters guidelines on sources, which are typical of those used by all credible news outlets:

You must source every statement in every story unless it is an established fact or is information clearly in the public domain, such as court documents or in instances when the reporter, photographer or camera operator was on the scene.

Adherence to this standard is the reason credible reporters don’t just assert things, like “Unemployment is down.” Instead, they’ll write “Unemployment has fallen to 4.7 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.”

Beware of attempts to fool you with sources that look credible, but aren’t. These include organizations that appear to be government agencies, respected research institutions, or major news organizations, but aren’t. Look them up. While even the best sources can make mistakes, there’s usually a good reason for a good reputation.

5. Check the logic. Not only should the facts of the story be solid, so should the way they’re connected. Let’s say you hear that a person wearing sneakers has robbed a bank. Does this mean all sneaker-wearers are probably bank robbers? Of course not.

If a scientific study found that many bank robbers do wear sneakers, then we’d at least know there’s a correlation of some kind. But we still wouldn’t know that wearing sneakers means someone is likely to be a crook. It could just be that robbers like to be able to run fast. All of this would need to be checked out.

It may be easy to see the problem with jumping to conclusions about sneaker wearers, but this kind of illogic is common in less-than-credible news outlets, and often goes unchallenged by consumers. For example, because some immigrants commit crimes, many people conclude that immigrants are more dangerous, and some news outlets encourage that belief. But the logic doesn’t follow, and when we check the facts, we find that first generation immigrants commit less crime than native-born Americans do.

Now, here’s a test. Do you yourself believe that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes? Then please be aware that your own confirmation bias makes you more likely to accept what I just said, on faith. Please check — using credible, objective sources, not just the ones who always tell you what you want to hear — to see for yourself.

And the same if you still believe immigrants are more likely to be criminals: be aware that your confirmation bias makes you more likely to reject what I’m saying. Check for yourself — again, using credible, objective sources, not just the ones who always tell you what you want to hear.

6. Understand what you’re looking at. The difference between reliable and unreliable isn’t always black and white. There are different kinds of content that meet, or fail to meet, different kinds of standards:

Hard news. This is just the facts. For example: “A home on 13th St. suffered extensive damage last night after a 30-foot elm tree was blown over by 60 mph winds.”

Opinion. This may be an editorial, an op-ed (in newspapers, this is opinion that appears on the page opposite the editorial page), or a blog post. It’s not a problem if it’s biased — that’s what opinion means. Many good newspapers have a clear bias on their editorial pages, but give straight reporting on their news pages. Reputable opinion writers will base their arguments on verifiable facts, because opinion isn’t an excuse to make things up. You should feel confident that you can agree or disagree without worrying about being misled.

Feature story. This is softer, interpretive coverage of a story or people, exploring meaning and emotion. For example: “Frank Sinatra, holding a glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other, stood in a dark corner of the bar between two attractive but fading blondes who sat waiting for him to say something.” That’s the opening sentence of one of the most famous feature stories of all, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” by Gay Talese. Although a feature story is subjective, all facts it cites should be objectively true (unless it’s clear the writer is playing with the boundaries between fact and fiction, the way Hunter S. Thompson did, for example).

Biased, but still valid, news. Since reporters are humans, it’s impossible for any of them to be 100 percent bias free — even our story about the tree hitting the house showed more concern for the house than for the tree. But some outlets report hard news from a biased perspective. As long as they’re careful with facts and logic, such outlets can be worth consulting — especially if they challenge your own biases.

News that’s so biased it’s misleading. To support their in-house bias, some outlets twist facts and logic so much that they do more harm than good. This describes some other tabloids.

Fake news. Fake news is just made up from thin air.

7. Understand “Who benefits?” This is a technique, known by its Latin translation of cui bono, used by investigators. They find suspects by identifying who benefits from the crime.

It can help you decide whether news is real or fake.

Is the mainstream media fake news, the way we hear so often lately? No, and the charge is irresponsible, because it undermines the legitimacy of the free press, which is a foundation of democracy. What “mainstream” means is commitment to traditional standards of accuracy. Each mainstream outlet has strict ethical standards (for example, these) and will quickly discipline or fire reporters who violate them.

By far, most mainstream journalists, whatever their shortcomings, want to meet those standards. They got into the business in the first place because they wanted to discover the truth.

Even if you find that hard to believe (in my experience, it’s true), consider this: whatever their shortcomings may be, mainstream media companies benefit by getting the facts right, not wrong. Objectivity in journalism grew out of the business opportunity of selling content to all kinds of readers, conservative and liberal, many of whom make important decisions based on the accuracy of what they get from the mainstream news, and wouldn’t be happy to learn it was fake. Meanwhile, advertisers in mainstream media are there because they want to reach a large audience. They have no interest in seeing some of it turned off by partisan coverage.

Some less reputable media companies, though, make money a different way: by selling not facts, but sensation. They’re aiming to catch the attention of gullible people who are swayed by emotion, and they tend to attract advertisers who like that kind of customer.

Remember tip 2: If the story is sensational, be more skeptical.

So if you hear someone claim the mainstream media is fake, ask yourself, ”Who benefits from making me believe that?”

Answer: people who want to get away with stuff.

So who can you trust?

I won’t try to list all the credible news outlets (although if I did, this one would make the cut, so please come back some time).

But a good place to start is with the two most widely respected: the New York Times and the Washington Post. Neither is perfect, of course — remember: humans — but both are excellent. They originate much of the news you hear each day, they have enough reporters to cover a wide range of topics in depth, and they are home to some of the most influential opinion writers from across the political spectrum.

How do you know I’m steering you straight? You can now check for yourself — and I hope you will.

I’ll leave you with a thought from Thomas Jefferson, who, despite his own problems with the press, was one of its greatest champions:

No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions. (Letter to Judge John Tyler Washington, June 28, 1804.)

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