Faith, Fox and the Failure of Politics

by Jeff Schweitzer Scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in neurophysiology 11.07.2017

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As the Keanu Reeves title character John Wick said, “Well, yeah, I’m thinking I’m back.” While I do not have Wick’s martial arts skill, good looks or quiet charm (or any of his redeeming qualities, or hair, for that matter), I share with him a deep frustration with the need to confront unpleasant realities after an extended effort to ignore them. One could argue that blogging in the age of Trump is an act of self-flagellation, a futile attempt to clap with one hand. Yet we can find value in having a conversation among the sane by seeking solace with others struggling to understand the absurd, sharing concerns and troubles, and charting our difficult path to a better future, even if without the benefit of dialogue with reasonable opponents.

Our New Reality

Regardless of time or place, all great generals throughout history have recognized the need to cede territory in the face of pending loss in order to survive to fight another day. Wishful thinking and delusional hope never triumph in battle. During some of the most epic battles of the Civil War, both Grant and Lee proved their genius in retreat rather than victory. This lesson is relevant today because we are fighting a new phase of this same war; Appomattox just shifted the nature of the conflict. Those of us who champion a secular world view based in evidence, facts, and reason must be realistic like those Civil War generals and recognize the harsh reality of our circumstances. The one-third of voting Americans who watch Fox News and who continue to support Trump are lost forever. We need to cede that territory, however painful. Our task is to concentrate on the remaining two-thirds of the electorate. Many will recoil at the idea of giving up on the one-third, but cede that territory we must if we have any chance of regaining control. We cannot reason with Trump supporters because reason has no currency in their fact-free faith-based world; we must defeat them. Any hope for reconciliation is delusional, and in these desperate times we have not that luxury of delusion any more than did Lee or Grant. Blogging remains worthwhile precisely because there is a chance that the rest of us can unite sufficiently to end the current reign of hateful ignorance imposed by a virulent minority.

Faith and Fox

Faith is belief in the absence of any demand for objective proof. Something is true simply because one has faith that it is. Secular conclusions are open to modification when presented with contrary data; that is how science advances and why we have rockets and the internet and are not still living in the Stone Age. Einstein built on Newton to create the Theory of Relativity, modifying Newton’s understanding with new insights and new data. Faith is immune to such change or advance because faith makes no appeal to data at all. Faith defined by Webster is the “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” Hebrews 11:1 has faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” There is no evidence or proof we will see our loved ones upon our death; those who believe so do so on the basis of faith alone, having the “conviction of things not seen.”

Faith and religion are not the same thing, but the latter could not exist without the former. Without faith there is no religion. Religion, according to Webster, is “a system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.” Religion and faith are intertwined beyond being conjoined by definition: when confused, or doubting, or angry at god, we are counseled that he works in mysterious way; that we are too humble to understand, that trials and losses are meant to test our faith. Demanding proof of religious proclamations or questioning established doctrine is itself sometimes given as evidence of a lack of faith. So we are told to have faith because we cannot be with god without faith. Hebrews 11:6 says that “without faith, it is impossible to please God. John 3:16 warns that without faith, we cannot be saved. Romans 10:17 declares that “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” Having faith yields divine reward: Matthew 21:22 says that “if you believe, you will receive whatever you ask in prayer.”

So let us agree that Judeo-Christian religions are founded on the very principle that faith is both necessary and sufficient; that proof of divinity is not required or even desirable. Religion without faith is like a waterfall without water; the absence of one precludes the existence of the other.

Yes, of course, each of us has the right to believe whatever we want. Absolutely. To each his own. Everybody is free to believe as he or she wishes. So far, so good, no harm, no foul, and we can throw in a couple of other clichés. But alas the reality is not so benign. The trouble begins when our respective religions give us each the mandate to impose our beliefs on others. This is where faith becomes problematic, because belief, in the absence of evidence or proof, offers no means of arbitrating between competing claims. “I believe therefore it is true” does not yield to reason or an appeal to contrary evidence. Which brings us to Fox News, and no, that segue is not at all abrupt or incongruous, as we shall see.

Fox and Fantasy

We know that religion exists only in the presence of faith and that this embrace of faith is pervasive. About 85 percent of the world’s population believes in god, a total of about 6 billion people. Humans clearly have a tendency toward belief in the absence of evidence, an innate willingness to accept as true “things not seen.” This tendency is precisely why Fox News can exist. Fox is an extension of religion, which like Fox, can only exist in the presence of faith. Fox News can thrive only if its audience accepts on faith the network’s lies and fabrications with no expectation of any objective supporting evidence; they simply have faith that what Fox says is true and that is sufficient for them. Fox believes therefore it is true.

News based on faith rather than fact, however, is not news at all, but propaganda. We have been here before. Long before Fox News, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels perfected the dissemination of half-truths, innuendo, outright falsehoods, and the suppression of unflattering stories. Goebbels was charged by the Fuhrer with presenting Hitler to the public in the most favorable light, regulating the content of all German media, and discrediting those who opposed the Reich (sound familiar?). Lee Atwater resurrected these strategies, Karl Rove embraced and enhanced the practice, and Fox took them to Nazi-era extremes. Fox is unabashedly the media outlet of the Republican Party, airing only that which supports the right wing agenda. Fox is our version of state television, little different from Goebbels offered his viewing audience or what is available in Russia or China today, with content controlled and guided by a political agenda. 

Let us be clear that liberal media is not the left’s version of Fox. Faith-based news is not equivalent to news reporting verifiable facts, even if that reporting is biased toward the left. This common claim of the far right that Fox is nothing but a response to left-wing bias is the worst kind of false equivalency. Unlike Fox coverage of Trump, CNN was incessantly critical of Obama, including his foreign policy. Obama’s drone war and his policies toward Cuba and Iran were critically scrutinized for example. I challenge anyone to find any Fox News headline critical of Trump or his policies.

The argument we hear in daily conversations that “they all do it” when discussing media bias ignores the form, weight, intensity and tenuous link to reality in the bias we see on Fox News, or with Ann Coulter or Hannity or Limbaugh. Unlike Fox, left-leaning media like CNN or the New York Times are tethered to reality by reliance on evidence and objective verifiable truths. Left wing media is biased, as is right wing media, but the difference is that the left remains a champion of a free press willing to question any administration left or right.

Trump and Fox not only do not support a free press, they actively seek to oppress it. Trump attempted to blackmail journalists in an effort to keep them from airing an unfavorable story. The White House barred media considered unfriendly, including CNN and the New York Times, from attending a news briefing in an attempt to exclude organizations critical of Trump. In his escalating war on free press, Trump warned that critical coverage could cost Time Warner its merger with AT&T. What Trump is doing is unprecedented, even considering Nixon: never before has a U.S. President actively sought to silence the press with a concerted campaign of intimidation. There is no equivalency here. On a regulator basis Trump dismisses legitimate and sourced negative coverage as fake news to discredit the free press, and his audiences cheer. They do so because his supporters demand no proof or evidence of his claim; they accept it on faith.

So yeah, left wing media is biased; right wing media is biased. But on the left there is nothing comparable to the massive, organized, intentional distortions seen on the right, or the coordinated overt attacks on free press unprecedented in modern American history. To see this clearly we only have to look at coverage of Benghazi, an important case because Fox overtly used this as a vehicle to promote Trump’s election. The same of course is true of the Fox obsession with Hillary’s email or any number of Obama conspiracies. But let’s look at Benghazi.

During George Bush’s presidency, the U.S. suffered 13 attacks on embassies and consulates in which 60 people died (some put the total at 87). What is important here: Fox News (or any conservative media for that matter) mentioned not at all or only in passing any of these attacks and deaths. Compared to the never-ending coverage of the deaths of four Americans in Libya, I can find not one single Fox News or conservative media reports on the 8 Americans killed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; not one story of Jim Mollen’s murder, and none on the murder of Edward Seitz.

Consider now that the deaths in Benghazi were covered in saturation nearly non-stop for almost two full years after the attacks. According to MediaMatters, Fox News ran 1,098 segments on the Libya attacks, at least 20 per month, with a peak of 174 in October 2012. Of these, 281 segments alleged a “cover up” by the Obama administration, without offering any evidence for the claim, and pushing the story long-past when the claim was proven false. There is and was no cover up. The House Armed Services Committee report concluded that the Obama administration was “not guilty of any deliberate, negligent wrongdoing.” Fox failed to report this. The GOP panel confirmed that “no one was deliberately misled, no military assets were withheld and no stand-down order” was given to the military. This is a Republican majority report. The bi-partisan Senate report on Benghazi came to the same conclusion that there was no cover up. Fox failed to report this as well.

Equally corrupt, Fox aired 100 segments pushing the blatant lie that the Obama administration issued a “stand-down order” before there was any evidence for the claim and even after the accusation was known to be false. So Fox aired hundreds of segments on an alleged cover up and stand-down order that they knew to be wrong. Compare this blitzkrieg of false accusations concerning four American deaths to the complete lack of coverage or investigation into the 60 deaths suffered during 13 attacks under Bush. There is absolutely nothing in liberal media remotely comparable to this onslaught of blatantly biased coverage and these accusations fabricated from thin air. This misinformation campaign could only be sustained if the audience accepts on faith what Fox News airs; even the most cursory critical review would shatter the myth.

Fox’s success in getting Trump elected by promoting lies about Benghazi, emails, health care and Obama’s heritage relies upon the strategic implantation of a news propaganda cycle. The toxic brew begins with isolating viewers with “us versus them” tribalism, for example pounding relentlessly the idea that the “liberal media” is undermining Christian values. This proceeds to creating specific enemies through character assassination, innuendo, false accusations and scapegoating. We are now united against them, a common enemy (liberals, atheists). From there we advance to an appeal to fear, never far from the old standbys of immigrants and stereotyping, with Muslims a favorite go-to. With these three areas of propaganda firmly established we go for the big prize, creating an alternate reality (Obama will take your guns, liberals want to abolish Christmas) using misinformation, outright falsehoods, half-truths and the suppression of anything contradictory.

Such suppression is seen with the story of Trump’s collusion with Russia. This is mentioned on Fox only in the context of examples of liberal bias. Fox coverage here is the inverse of what happened with Benghazi, killing a real story instead of airing ceaseless attention to fabricated news.

Like its predecessors in Germany, Fox has with this cynical cycle of deception and suppression perfected the art of “dark propaganda” which masquerades as news and information but has the intent of persuading, not informing. Inversion is a favorite technique, like calling real news fake and embracing fake news as real. Unlike more benign advertising, dark propaganda seeks to convince an audience of “something false, half-true or unsubstantiated, using deceit to deceive” to promote a political agenda. This can only be done if the audience does not demand evidence for dark claims; that is, if the viewers rely on faith to establish authenticity. Hence Fox’s success in advancing (easily disproved) lies about immigrant crime rates, illegal voting, unemployment figures or Obama’s birthplace. In spite of overwhelming contrary evidence, with faith as their guide the audience can dismiss Trump’s collusion with Russia as a hoax or liberal conspiracy. With faith, with believe in the absence of proof, the Fox audience is willing to accept Trump’s lies that “I won the popular vote” or “Obama had my wires tapped” or “I had the largest inaugural crowd ever.” These claims are easily proved false, but faith does not yield to fact.

Dark propaganda is effective only if the audience wants to believe the big lie, and is willing to exclude incompatible data when reality conflicts with deeply held convictions. The dark propaganda of Fox News thrives on the nourishment of faith, serving up manna to an audience that accepts as true all that is presented with no challenge or skepticism. The suppression of negative stories about Trump, the bizarre birther charade, and the obsessions with Benghazi, and Hillary’s email can all be manipulated only because facts no longer matter with an audience embracing the conviction of things not seen.

Fox is a cancer on our society, and the disease can only spread when sustained by faith. Once we no longer demand evidence or proof, we have no limits on crazy with brakes of reason; anything goes, we believe whatever we want with no boundaries, and we get Trump and Fox. Belief in god, or that Obama is a Muslim, or climate change is a liberal hoax are all based on faith, a belief in the absence of evidence and the willingness to reject convincing evidence that does not comply with previously held beliefs. Fox represents a faith-based worldview immune to reason or any appeal to objective verifiable truths. Fox cannot exist without faith any more than could religion.

Fantasy and Failure

Belief in the absence of evidence yields religion and Fox, but the damage is much deeper still. If facts do not matter, if we cannot agree on an objective reality, we have lost the ability to solve problems through reason and dialogue. If we do not accept evidence and robust data as the essential tools that we can use to verify or falsify claims, we have no common language or mechanism to distinguish between fantasy and fact. We cannot arbitrate between competing claims or evaluate the benefits or costs of technological and scientific advances. Hence we have climate change denial in the face of overwhelming evidence. EPA no longer has any scientific advisory board: why would one be needed if facts are irrelevant? Standards for clean air and clean water no longer rely on data but ideology; vehicle and fuel standards are skewed to favor industry rather than where the data lead; pollution standards and enforcement are guided by political contributions instead of measurable metrics. With no appeal to data, we retreat from clean and renewable energy in favor of coal.

For the first time since WWII, the White House has no science input; the Office and Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Presidential Council on Science and Technology (PCAST) are unstaffed. In a world increasingly dependent on science and technology, the United States has cast itself adrift. We have the President of the United States at a G20 meeting isolated and ignored as an ineffective buffoon. With our faith-based policies the United States has under Trump become a laughingstock, a country incapable of leading not only on climate change but on virtually all major issues critical to an ever-connected world in which science and rationalism play increasingly important roles.

The dark side of faith ends not there. Attorney General Jeff Sessions claims that, “The Constitution says we shall not establish a religion — Congress shall not establish a religion. It doesn’t say states couldn’t establish a religion.” When he says religion, he means his brand of Christianity, because he has faith that his beliefs trump those who object to having another religion imposed upon them. Understand this: the Attorney General of the United States, the man responsible our enforcing our laws, advocates for a government-imposed religion. This is the antithesis of everything American, offensive to the ideals of our founding, but fully consistent with having faith as one’s guide. In a state with a Muslim majority Sessions would probably not want to have the government establish religion; only Christianity is good to go. State religion, creationism taught in place of evolution; Christian symbols erected in public spaces; hate crimes against Muslims and Jews; discrimination against the LGBT community; the celebration of ignorance and rejection of science; Fox News and Trump: these are the consequences of faith, the terrible dangers of belief in the absence of evidence. If our Republic is to survive as the country we know and love, the two-thirds who rely on facts, reason, verifiable data, evidence, and objective truth must vanquish the one-third who embrace faith, the conviction of things unseen, as the foundation for all else.

 

 

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