The Arsonists Among Us

Or How We Got to This Point Part III

As a country we are beset with so many problems and issues that it is difficult to even contemplate where to begin.  We are hammered, day in and day out with the shouted noise from the so-called mainstream media, the social media, bloggers like me, the politicians, the lobbyists, the left, the right, the religious interests, the corporate interests, legal interests, the global interests, the nationalist interests, trade interests, election reform, the security issues, the gun rights issues, the right-to-life or get-to-choose issues, education issues, climate issues, black lives matter, blue lives matter, all lives matter, no lives matter.

What matters most? Where do we start?

How can we possibly hope to address all of these things in any meaningful way?

Is it possible that we have come to a point where we cannot address the root cause of our truly critical problems because we have to spend all our time addressing the symptoms?  Are we spending so much time putting out the fires that we don’t have time to look for the arsonist?  Should we just let it all burn and start over?

There is a sense that we, as a country, are at a critical point in our history, and I am not talking about the presidential election, although that is both a symptom of the real causes of our predicament and a feedback element making those symptoms worse.

There seems to be a real fear, both on the left and the right, that things are about to get out of hand, that we are no longer in control and that somehow the cart is now driving the horse.

Plato set reason above all other characteristics of human nature.  Within the mind he thought it should rule supreme.  Aristotle, Plato’s contemporary, defined a life lived completely in accordance with reason as the height of human happiness and defined human beings as rational animals.  While one might argue that a life lived completely in accordance with reason sounds more Vulcan than human, western civilization is based on the ideas the early Greek philosophers developed.  Our science and our laws, our entire culture, are founded on systems of reason and logic.

The term dialogue also originates from the Greek.  It comes from the Greek words dia and logos and can be translated as through words.  It does not connote an argument or a debate.  It does not involve taking sides.  It is a conversation held with an open mind where questions are asked and answered.  In a dialogue the mind must be capable of holding all of the evidence for and against a hypothesis at the same time without taking sides until everything has been presented and discussed.

Information is given and received.  Rhetoric is used to arrive at conclusions.  Each participant can then use reason to determine a truth.  In all of Plato’s famous Dialogues, he never comes out and says, “This is the right answer.”

While this little slice of history may seem relatively tangential to the list at the top of this essay, I would contend that the ideas here lie at the heart of what ails us on the deepest levels.

To begin with, we no longer have dialogues.  We have arguments, debates, and shouting matches.  We trade insults; we have meme contests.  We don’t have dialogues.

It may no longer be possible to have a dialogue.

Remember, a dialogue requires an open mind, a rare commodity today.

A dialogue requires reason to determine truth.  We are a nation where rational thought is no longer held in highest regard.  We are a nation where rational thought is now given the same status as opinion and faith.  As a result, the methods by which we exercise reason are no longer widely accepted, exercised, or even taught in our schools.

And a dialogue is something accomplished “through words.”  The idea was originated by the most educated men of their time.  It is something not best done with a sixth grade vocabulary.  And it not something that will happen between an expert with twenty years of education and another twenty years of experience in a specialized field and a so-called media pundit with a deeply held opposite opinion or a religious advocate who insists that words mean nothing and only true belief in God holds meaning.

It is also increasingly true that the meanings of words are now more dependent on who is using them than any objective definition.

A dialogue is a conversation which must last long enough for information to be conveyed by each of the participants.  The format is questions asked and answered.  If the participants can’t stand each other long enough to be in the same room together, it cannot exist.  It is nearly impossible for dialogues to occur between enemies unless they possess exceptional minds.

It is also important that the information exchanged be accurate and factual.  There must be an agreed upon definition of what factual actually means.  A dialogue is never just an exchange of opinion.

We have, as a culture, turned our backs on the foundations of our western civilization, and a vast number of people, on having that pointed out, will shrug and say, “We have bigger problems to deal with.”

We do not.

We have bigger symptoms to deal with.

Columnist Peggy Noonan reacted to a Bernie Sanders comment in one of the presidential debates that climate change contributed to the rise of ISIS.  She said it made him look “slightly daffy like someone who doesn’t understand what the real subject is…”  He understood the real subject perfectly.  He understood and still understands that problems are inter-related, systemic.   Some are big.  Some are bigger.

There is no question that we have plenty of big problems facing us.

But we must also understand and work to eliminate the bigger ones, the root issues.  We have to find the arsonists.

Among all the issues noted above, the most critical is the elevation of opinion to the level of fact and the increasing inability of the American public to distinguish between them.  There are a number of roads that join at the edge of this precipice, and they can be looked at individually and then considered in their synergistic relationship.

Back in 1949 the FCC introduced the Fairness Doctrine.  It essentially required broadcast stations to devote airtime to controversial public issues and at the same time to provide contrasting views in order to assure fairness.

This did a number of things for broadcast television.  It created an atmosphere in which television journalism could rise and flourish, but it also allowed stations to undercut their own news programs by offering an opposing view by less qualified advocates.  Edward R. Murrow complained toward the end of his career that his well-researched and popular shows were being undermined by the network when they aired a contrary opinion by someone with few credentials in the next time slot.

But while there were just three broadcast television networks, the Fairness Doctrine served the purpose of allowing people to hear at least two points of view on most issues.

The Supreme Court upheld the FCC’s authority to enforce the Fairness Doctrine in 1969 because of the scarcity of the broadcast spectrum.

The rise of the cable networks and the internet quickly changed that and the FCC eliminated the doctrine in 1987.

This decision allowed for the ascendency of the radio talk show.  Rush Limbaugh’s show was syndicated in 1988 and is still on the air (although may not be shortly).  Glen Beck and others followed on his heels.  The rise of right wing talk radio without any requirement for the media to air contrasting views is often cited as a major reason for the divisiveness that has permeated American politics for the past two decades.

The demise of the Fairness Doctrine also prepared the way for media outlets with an obvious political, cultural, and religious slant.  There is some question as to whether Fox Cable News or MSNBC could have become what they are today had the Fairness Doctrine still been in place.

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, the rise of evangelical Christianity began to pick up speed from the 70’s onward.  Evangelicals represent the only segment of the Christian faith to see growth since that time.  Evangelicals share beliefs with most all of the “traditional” sects of Christianity, but they have a number of beliefs that are not quite the same and which single them out for this discussion.

Evangelicals believe that salvation comes through the acceptance of Jesus Christ as one’s savior through faith alone.  In evangelical theology, Christ died on the cross “in full payment of all our sin-both past and future.” They believe that “good works” are something done to show gratitude for the pardon, and are not required to earn it.

Evangelicals also believe “that the forgiveness of sins is granted by grace alone to those who will receive it by faith alone.   It must be received as an utterly undeserved gift or it cannot be received at all.”

Further, evangelicals maintain that “the Bible is the Word of God; without error as originally written.  Its content has been preserved by Him, and is the final authority in all matters of doctrine and faith-above all human authority.” (1)  [All emphasis mine.]

The rise of the evangelical movement and the adoption of those beliefs by conservative (strict family model (2)) politicians [now called the Christian Right] parallels the decline in respect for science, the confusion over fact and opinion, and our inability to hold meaningful dialogues on topics of importance.  Whether there is a causal relationship will have to be left to scholars.  Given the platform provided for these ideas by the cable media and the talk show hosts, I tend to believe there is.

The worldview of the evangelical is one where belief is the highest form of mental activity.  If you believe, what you say and what you do – what you have said and have done – what you will say and will do, make no difference.  Not only is there no need for rational thought in this process, rational thought essentially contradicts what you know, through faith, to be true.  Science contradicts what you know, through belief, to be true.  And education, which emphasizes reason, science, and a factual approach, challenges what you know, through faith, to be true, and is therefore a threat to your faith.

Coupled with the idea that the bible is an infallible document with content preserved by God Himself, this reliance on belief over reason has brought the evangelical right into conflict with both science and constitutional secular government, driving a wedge further into the population, while at the same time making it almost impossible to have a national conversation on the topic because it undermines the very principles of a dialogue.

Evangelicals now make up about 27% of the population in the United States. (3)  This past year, sixteen of the seventeen original candidates for the Republican presidential nomination had ties to the evangelical movement or expressed views consistent with their beliefs.  And the seventeenth is now courting them.

At about the same time that evangelical Christianity began to expand in this country, bulletin board services, the precursors of today’s social media, became popular.  CompuServe allowed people all over the country to interact through discussion forums.  AOL featured member created communities complete with profiles.  The internet chat rooms were the Face Book of their time, complete with anonymity, trolls, and virtual sex (via text).

The first real blog sites showed up just before the millennium.  Suddenly anyone could be Walter Winchell.

When Face Book came online in 2004, everyone could suddenly share anything with anyone, especially their own opinion, and they had just as much right to do that as anyone else.  You could spend a lifetime studying and learning in your field, but if you made the mistake of posting a conclusion online, you could be shouted down by literally thousands of people who knew no more about the subject than that they disagreed with you for some reason, stated or not.

The internet has become the great equalizer of our time.  Anyone, regardless of education, intelligence, language skills, or credentials has just as much right to post their opinion online as anyone else.  This has given rise to the idea that everyone is just as important as everyone else; that what I say is just as important as what you say, no matter how absurd, previously disproven and factually bereft what I say may be.   This is the democracy of the internet.  This is the come-uppance the elite and the establishment have deserved.   I am as good as you, and I will say so in every comment I can find to make.

Media sites like Face Book, anxious to keep people coming back, developed algorithms that automatically showed us more of the opinions we want to see.

And the anonymity of the internet coupled with the sheer volume of information that traverses it daily has made facts irrelevant.  That volume has made it nearly impossible to ascertain the validity of anything.  It takes an enormous amount of time to verify something you see online.  Most people take things from a site they “trust” “on faith” (to coin a phrase).

The last place on earth you will find anything like the Fairness Doctrine is on the internet.

If I want the internet to believe something is true, all I have to do is bombard the internet with enough traffic saying that it is true.  Memes are so popular and so pervasive because words and images have a tremendous impact on the brain.  If I show you enough pictures of alligators eating babies with impressive fonts informing you that yet another alligator has killed an innocent, you will eventually begin to (at the least) ask yourself “why is this happening,” and at best, you will be sharing it with every couple you know with small children.  If I show you enough fake articles decrying the carnage and a graph or two showing the rise in baby-eating, you will be writing your congressman to DO something about this outrage.

This is all about cultural merchandising and political manipulation.  Millions are spent promoting ideas and positions through creation and sharing of memes, posting of comments, and spreading of lies.

None of this has anything at all to do with a reasoned dialogue about our nation’s many problems.  It is all a part of the problem, not a part of the solution.

Beginning with the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and the rise of right wing talk radio, fueled by an increasing incursion of evangelical Christian belief into political arenas and the transference of belief-based thinking from religion to the country at large, and powered by the enormous ability of the internet to allow anyone to engage in intellectual drivel masquerading as truth, we have transformed America and created a massive list of symptomatic issues.

What matters most?  Where do we start?

There is no question that we have to address the myriad issues listed at the beginning of this essay, but until we make headway toward re-establishing the idea that opinions are not facts, that faith cannot be substituted for reasoned arguments backed up by facts, and that only by gathering information in an open-minded way and then rationally discussing the options can we come to any real consensus.  With one quarter of the population now in direct opposition to those ideas and an entire political party in thrall to that percentage, we have an uphill battle.


Your Humble Servant,

Roger A. Shipley, The Willowbrook Curmudgeon


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3 thoughts on “The Arsonists Among Us

  1. Thanks for Plato mention. Makes me want to dust off my great books. I think you’re pretty even-handed in your criticism of Evangelicals, but would like to offer some ideas to ponder. Although my heritage is Polish Jewish and Catholic, swedish Lutheran and atheist, I’ve come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah. I do believe in grace, but believe also in the scripture that clearly says, “Come now and let us reason, says the Lord.” Evangelicals may put their brains in park, but I see a much broader admonition from both the OT and NT to utilize the masterpiece known as the brain. I would also offer that Evangelical culture may be more hopeful than you think. Most expressions of public education in the US were largely instituted because low-Church Ie. Protestants, needed a place to send their kids. While far from perfect, maybe that’s at least a historical marker that Evangelicals DO value education?
    Regarding the Bible and science criticism, may I offer a humble addition? I believe, like many E’s, that the Bible should be measured with differing yardsticks based on the context and intent of the author. Meaning? Where its claims are poetic, use a poetic standard. Where historic, use archeology, manuscript evidence, outside sources. Only use a scientific measure whete claims concerns observational truths. Thx!


    • I appreciate the comment. I have always maintained that religion has exerted a vital and positive influence on this country since the first settlers arrived. Recently, however, that positive influence has become harder to document among some sects, particularly Evangelical Christians. Your willingness to interpret the bible using differing yardsticks is admirable, but not the core Evangelical belief. These are complicated issues, but they are becoming increasingly important as the country moves into uncharted waters where many feel that the election of a new president has signaled a mandate for more religion in government.

      Liked by 1 person

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