I hope you got a break over the last two weeks and that it was awesome. I went home to Alabama and thoroughly enjoyed spending time with my crazy family. I get it naturally.
Over the break my dad shared an email chain with me that contained this essay.
Before I left, a friend of mine played me this video and asked me what I thought of it. I said it was clever and interesting at times, bringing up, for instance, the Catholicism/Dark Enlightenment angle of the alt-right. But that overall I found it really boring in that it’s mostly preaching to the choir. Yes, the alt-right is bad. We get it.
I find listening to actual alt-righters (the smart ones anyway) far more interesting than screeds from people who agree with me on it. Critiques of an ideology from outside that ideology are usually boring.
People outside an ideology are generally only familiar with the broad strokes of the belief system and have only heard from it’s loudest, most fringe adherents. That’s not where you’re going to find the best arguments against what you already believe. Where would I be if this were the best the right wing could do in terms of arguing against sexual liberation?
I like to follow people who don’t agree with me likely at least in part because I have a humiliation fetish and love to know people deeply disapprove of me. But also because I don’t assume I’m right about everything, and don’t want to depend on the people who agree with me about most things to inform me when I’m wrong because they’re probably wrong in many of the same ways.
At the same time, I’m constantly preaching to the choir in my writing. It’s not my primary purpose by any stretch. But I do it sometimes. There’s a fine line between explaining something basic to people who are unfamiliar with the ideas and merely sanctimoniously repeating and confirming the ideas of your tribe.
But there’s more to listening to people I disagree with than their ability to correct me when I’m wrong. Even when I am right (it happens sometimes), if I’m ever to convince people who disagree with me, I’m more successful when I understand what my ideological opponents actually believe. I’ve never yet found common ground with someone by straw-manning their positions. And I’ve yet to understand the best arguments for a point of view I don’t share by only listening to the rantings of its craziest adherents. To really understand a new and contrary idea, I generally need someone who understands it themselves to explained it to me. Plenty of people claim to represent feminism, leftism, Christianity, the alt-right, etc. And you’d think you’d want to understand ideas before you claimed to represent them. But, some people’s desire for notoriety outstrips their understanding of or interest in the ideas they claim to represent.
If I only listen to the grifters, I won’t understand the ideas they’ve co-opted.
Anyway, so I’m reading the speech/essay and I’m trying to read charitably and I find a passage I can agree with right away.
“The Mueller investigation is about removing President Trump from office and overturning the results of an election. We all know that.”
“Agree” is a strong word. This definitely isn’t how I’d describe what’s going on. But the statement is factually correct. And viewed in isolation, I could see how one would describe the situation thusly.
Over the break I found out my dad, who reads the news pretty closely, didn’t know about Stephen Miller’s emails with white supremacists. The conservative media as a whole seems to have pretended that there isn’t any evidence that Stephen Miller, the man who writes our immigration policy, the person behind the concentration camps, is collaborating with white supremacists. Now, in my mind, means one of two things. Perhaps the evidence is so flimsy that NPR shouldn’t have covered it. They didn’t leak the actual emails. Maybe Stephen “put the kids in cages and don’t give them flu shots in winter” Miller was telling avowed white nationalist Richard Spencer to fuck off.
Or, there’s not one person at Fox News that thinks that the influence of white nationalists on the head of immigration for the United States of America is of any real consequence. Or, there is, but they’re not allowed to talk about it.
The essay goes on:
But it’s not the first time they’ve done this. The first time a Republican president was elected this century, they said he didn’t really win. The Supreme Court gave him the election. There’s a pattern here. What do the odds of the Democrats rejecting the next Republican president really mean? It means they don’t accept the results of any election that they don’t win. It means they don’t believe that transfers of power in this country are determined by elections. That’s a civil war.
Here, again, there’s a fact to be found. And here, again, the conclusion the Tea Partier author draws from that fact is paranoid and fearmongering. And probably great for fundraising.
In reality, Republicans are an demonstrably bigger threat to electoral integrity. They are literally systematically disenfranchising black voters at the state level despite being able to muster absolutely no credible evidence of widespread voter fraud. But, again, Fox News and Drudge Report aren’t reporting this.
I believe it’s true that Americans on both sides of the aisle are shouting past each other to a greater extent than previous generations. But I don’t think it’s because of the opinion-sphere, or social media. What’s disturbing to me today isn’t that we have our own sets of opinions. We always have and always will. What’s disturbing to me about today is that now we have our own sets of facts.
Newspapers lived and died by subscribers. They knew when what they ran lost them subscribers, but they had some clue which stories brought them in. But, other than that, they couldn’t tell which stories made them the most money. At most, they had one or two competitors to deal with. And the margins were good.
Online advertising changed everything. Websites know exactly which stories bring in exactly how much money, to the penny. Margins are terrible, because advertisers also know exactly how much an eyeball is worth. Turns out, not a whole lot.
Again and again, news sites that try to give their readers deeply reported, edifying stories lose their readers, and ad revenue, to the competitor willing to hit publish on whatever the readers what for the lowest price they can provide it.
Gathering facts is expensive. Farting out an op-ed is cheap. I know. I’ve done a lot of it. Before the internet, everyone formed their opinions around the same basic set of facts, reported out by their two newspapers and five or so news channels that everyone read and watched.
But today there’s no money for reporting for the sake of reporting. Today, there are five million opinion sites, some masquerading as objective news, to choose from that will tell you: “You’re right about everything, this new development proves it, click here.”
We don’t share the same facts. It’s entirely possible to follow the news closely and only hear facts that fit the narrative you already believe. The internet has made it possible to try to spend hours learning about what’s happening in the world yet walk away with all your most basic, deeply held ideas completely unchallenged.
This is bad. It’s bad for democracy. It’s bad for us as individuals. Why bother “keeping up with the news” if it never changes your mind about anything? While I enjoy John Oliver as entertainment, he deeply troubles me. Because sometimes I watch his coverage of something I’ve been following closely and listened to both sides on. And I notice which facts he’s including, and which he’s leaving out. And I realize that someone watching this segment with no other knowledge of the situation would actually come away totally convinced that there’s only one sane, rational way to see this situation, and everyone else must be stupid or crazy to believe otherwise. Sometimes a little information is worse than none at all.
Back in my anarcho-capitalist days and beyond, I was a market fundamentalist. I thought there was no category of voluntary exchange that competition and transparency couldn’t make more efficient, and better. I don’t think that anymore. Watching the internet kill reporting cured me of my market fundamentalism.
I don’t have a good solution for this problem, other than to realize you’re in a bubble and seek to pop it. Find the smart, nuanced thinkers who disagree with you and take their arguments seriously. Find the people whose facts are good and opinions are bad, because that’s how you find out what your side has been hiding from you. I think there’s a role for non-profits in this. I don’t think reporting will ever be super profitable. But I think it’s vital.
Lastly, some advice I got from one of my journalism professors at Samford: When your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.