Friday, October 30, 2015

Anyone wondering how much Seattle football coach who prayed at a game will make to be test case for religious right?

Why is it so hard for those who want to defend the rights of Christians to infringe on others to understand that when someone acts as an employee or representative of a public organization, he or she absolutely cannot wear their religion on the sleeve?

The latest attempt to assert a new religious right based not on the freedom to practice but the freedom to make a public display involves an assistant high school football coach for a public school district who was suspended from his job for praying at a game. He had done it before and been warned of the consequences of continuing to promote one religion while in the employ of a public school district.

But don’t feel sorry that Joe Kennedy has lost his job. He has a new one—as the latest poster boy for the religious right. He defiantly has told the news media that he is prepared to take his fight to manifest his Christianity while on the clock all the way to the Supreme Court. With a little help from his friends, who include the lawyers of the Liberty Institute, a pro bono law firm that specializes in helping Christian individuals and groups (and occasionally Orthodox Jews) use the First Amendment to assert their rights to encroach on secular institutions. I couldn’t find anything online yet, but it’s only a matter of time before we learn that donations for Kennedy are pouring in from a crowdsourcing website or that the religious right is taking care of Kennedy’s economic needs in some other way.

An enormous photograph of Kennedy already dominates the Liberty Institute home page less than two days after the suspension. Either they move quickly or they had already coordinated Kennedy’s defiance of the school district’s direct order not to continue praying on the sidelines. I’m thinking the latter. 

Call me cynical, but I’m wondering whether Kennedy has already negotiated his remuneration for serving as the test case. It would be no different from the hoard of PhDs taking money from right-wing think tanks to write claptrap against the minimum wage and public unions.

The self-proclaimed mission of the Liberty Institute is “to defend and restore religious liberty across America—in our schools, for our churches, inside the military, and throughout the public arena.” In the past, the Liberty Institute has defended the right of a student to distribute candy canes with a religious story attached at his school’s holiday party; filed a lawsuit against the Department of Veteran Affairs alleging it had censored prayers and the use of the words “God and Jesus”; and established the “Don't Tear Me Down” campaign to fight challenges against veterans memorials with Christian symbolism.

The Liberty Institute and other Kennedy defenders assert that his public prayer is protected by the First Amendment, forgetting that the First Amendment also protects against the establishment of one religion over the others. As a football coach, Kennedy is paid to be a figure of authority. His prayers can make the students who aren’t the same religion feel very uncomfortable, very left out.  Believe me, I know. I was on the football team of one of the five high schools I attended. (I’d like to say I “played football,” but I never entered any game for even one play!)  We always had a prayer session conducted by a member of the local clergy before every game, always ecumenical, with no prayer specific to one religion read nor any particular rite mentioned. We had about 80 kids on the team, all of whom were Christians of various sorts, except for three Jews, myself and two boys who were all-city. One time, the religious figure talked about Christ in the pre-game prayer. All three of us felt humiliated, bullied and unwanted. We told the coach how angry we were, and our parents probably did as well. The coach apologized immediately and assured us that it would never happen again. And it didn’t, at least as long as I went to that high school.

That was 1966 in Miami, Florida, long before evangelical groups decided that it wasn’t enough to have the right to practice one’s own religion in peace, but that they had to make sure that America was branded as a Christian nation that abided by Christian laws.

Even then I questioned the need to have any sort of prayer before football games, ecumenical or not. I understand that football and religion tend to go hand-in-hand in many places. It makes sense, because the same kind of belief in a higher order that helps if one is trying to follow the many rites and beliefs of an organized religion also can serve as the personal justification for putting oneself through painful practices and risking life-threatening injuries on every play. For similar reasons, military organizations often promote religiosity as a stabilizing and motivating element.  No one stops to think that perhaps one or more deities are rooting for the opponent, be it an athletic competition or a war.

Religion is an integral part of the football mentality. The ideal, of course, would be if everyone on the team were fighting for the same religion, so that the individual team members would feel even more bonded to each other and more ready to make sacrifices for victory. Unfortunately, professional teams, those affiliated with public schools and organizations and the armed forces are unable to enjoy the benefits of religious unity. There are just too many different religions around. Plus we have all those atheists.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The grand openings of both World Series and GOP debates overhype events as grandiose & historic battles of titans

By Marc Jampole

Channel surfers exercise their itchy thumbs for three reasons: 1) To see what’s on TV; 2) To avoid commercials; or 3) To watch two things at one time.

It was to this last group I belonged last night when I clicked between the musical openings of the World Series and the third Republican debate, televised on CNBC. I must have flipped between the two montages to music eight times during the thirty or so seconds these grandiose introductions simultaneously unfolded.

Suddenly I had an epiphany—not the kind of epiphany when you see something new for the first time, but the epiphany is which something you already understand in an intellectual way reveals itself personally to you with raw emotional power.

The epiphany came as I pondered how similar the two openings were: The producers of both the World Series and the debate were saying practically the same thing using precisely the same visual, narrative and rhetorical techniques:
·         Heroic and uplifting music that crescendos at the end.
·         Montage of the people involved, in close-ups mostly taken at a low angle up to make the figure seem more daunting and powerful—a typical photo technique used to photograph rulers of authoritarian nations.
·         Quick cutting between shots, with an acceleration of the pace of new shots as the piece progresses.
·         Short, provocative statements from the people shown.
·         Special effects that I would call “techno-corporate” in style, with rows of columns and architectural allusions, blocks of video and straight lines running across the frame.
·         A ponderously stiff and stately attitude, as if the viewers are about to see history being made.

Aficionados of televised professional football games will recognize this approach to trying to get the audience excited about what they are about to see. It’s been used to introduce every televised professional football game for decades.

The epiphany then was the realization of how much the news media presents our political debates as an entertainment spectacle.  To the mass media, a political debate is no different from a baseball or football game or a reality show based on a competition. The issues don’t matter, only the battle of wills between two, or in the case of the Republican debates, nine larger than life figures.

These nine candidates, however, are not titans, but little minds dedicated to enriching their larders and those of their sponsors. The debate itself was a dreary affair, except for those who like to see moderators or event leaders lose control, which happened a few times. The moderators once again tried to pit one candidate against another, and for the most part the candidates refrained from taking the debate bait. Two candidates did go after their peers. At the beginning, Kasich begged voters not to support the crazy amateurs, by whom he meant Trump and Carson. Jeb Bush lectured Marco Rubio like a stern high school teacher on Rubio’s poor Senate attendance. Rubio’s answer was evasively punky and pissy—that Jeb never went after McCain for his poor attendance—what you’d expect from a teenaged boy. But the media and the audience liked it. 

The dreariest part of the debate was the tedious comparisons of the various tax plans.  In every case, the candidate went out of his way to assure us that the rich were going to pay their fair share. An analysis of each plan, however reveals that all the candidates want the rich and the ultra-rich to pay significantly less in taxes than they do now.

Besides telling the same bold-faced lie that the wealthy will pay their fair share under their plans, the candidates make the same two conceptual mistakes. First, they assume that people who earn a million pay their fair share when they pay the same percentage of their income in taxes as do the middle class and poor. They forget that the government is providing the wealthy with more goods and services. Some examples: The middle class and poor don’t need the government to protect and assure the safe operation of financial markets and they don’t need the court system for commercial litigation. When the police protect property, they are protecting more of the property of the wealthy. Intellectual property law enforcement actually hurts the poor, while securing the rental rights of the wealthy.

The second fallacy is one of the fundamental principles of right-wing economics: If we lower taxes, the economy will grow. At this point, there have been so many studies disproving this false theory you’d think the Republicans would stop trying to present it.  What’s so irritating about the Republican insistence that lowering taxes helps the economy is that it goes against common sense. To agree with the Republicans you have to believe that rich folk grow the economy more by investing in stocks, real estate and art than the government does when it spends all the tax dollars it collects on needed goods and services or gives it to organizations with employees for various other goods and services. The wealthy remove money from the economy, government pumps it in.  Higher taxes for spending always help to grow the economy.

Carly Fiorina was the only one not to offer a plan to cut taxes, preferring to say that all the plans had merit, but what was needed was someone who could actually push a plan through. Carly implied that she was the gal to do it. After all, Fiorina was able to sell a very savvy board of directors on making one of the worst corporate acquisitions in American business history, so it should be a walk in the park for her to convince both houses of Congress to create a taxation system that is simpler and results in the wealthy and ultra-wealthy paying even less than the historically low amounts they now pay.

Unlike the World Series game, in which the Royals trounced the Mets, I’m not sure if there was a clear winner among Republicans in the third debate. I am suspicious of media speculation that Rubio or Cruz won. The mainstream media like Rubio and Cruz because they can’t like Jeb Bush anymore. Jeb almost disappeared from the proceedings, leaving these two first-term Senators from Southern states as the most prominent and highest ranking contenders not named Carson or Trump. But “highest ranking” doesn’t mean either is popular with voters.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Corporations, ideologues and craven academics all use grammar and syntax to distort meaning

By Marc Jampole

Civic leaders and large institutions often use language to color or misshape reality, thinking that through the use of words they can turn chicken feathers into chicken salad. Most of the time, their attempts are chicken shit, as the public has become wary of the various ways that politicians and corporations distort reality. Most people laugh derisively when a bank brags that 1.05% interest on a passbook account will help a family accumulate assets for retirement. And people get suspicious when corporations call a product recall a “quality withdrawal.”

But what if the organization or speaker deliver the lies not with words and phrases, but baked into the relationship between the parts of speech? Ellen Bresler Rockmore, a lecturer in rhetoric at Dartmouth presents a truly odious example of using syntax and grammar to tell a lie in an article titled “Texas History Lesson” in The New York Times.    Rockmore provides a complete analysis of the following paragraph in a United States history book that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) publishes for Texas schools (I refuse to write, “for the Texas school market”!):

Some slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly. To protect their investment, some slaveholders provided adequate food and clothing for their slaves. However, severe treatment was very common. Whippings, brandings, and even worse torture were all part of American slavery.

As Rockmore ably details, when talking about what the text book is trying to present as the positive aspects of slavery, the sentences have “subjects” like masters who do good things and “objects” such as slaves to whom good stuff happens. Forget the fact that most of this good stuff never occurred since life was brutish for most slaves most of the time. The writers handle the “brutish” aspects in the second part of the paragraph, entirely without attribution. When it comes to whippings, brandings and torture, which historians know occurred far more frequently than kind treatment, we never learn who did it and to whom it was done. By draining both the actor (subject) and the acted upon (object) from these sentences, the writers make the actions abstract, almost dehumanized, which in this sense, means devoid of human activity or intervention. Of course we know which human beings did commit torture, whippings, brandings and other atrocities—it was the slave owners.

Later in her very learned article, Rockmore gives an example of the most common means by which writers use syntax and grammar to deform the truth: the passive construction.  Her example, “Families were often broken apart when a family member was sold to another owner” contains two passives: “were broken apart” and “was sold.” If we replaced these parts of speech which active versions of the verbs, the sentence might read, “Slave owners often broke apart families by selling a family member to another slave owner.” Removing the passive removes attribution and makes it seem as if the action of breaking apart and selling are abstract and perhaps even natural processes. FYI, conservative economists currently use the same approach when they blame lower wages on the fact that “jobs in unionized older industries have been replaced by jobs in newer non-unionized industries.”

Corporations will often use these inherently squeamish forms of speech even when they are not talking about anything controversial. Lawyers and accountants pretty much always write in the passive voice, as a means not to attribute cause or action, and that predilection infected marketing departments and the rest of corporate America decades ago.

I have made an excellent living for more than 25 years advising clients on crisis communications issues, and in every case part of my advice has been to turn some sentences written in the passive construction into active voices:  My staff routinely turns sentences such as “The fight was broken up in five minutes” and “A dozen people will be laid off” into the more direct, “Security broke up the fight quickly with no one injured” and “We will lay off a dozen employees.”  My theory is that by accepting blame, the company will establish its credibility in fixing the problem and assuring the public that everything is back to normal. By speaking directly, the company comes off as open and honest, instead of projecting the deviousness and concealment of the passive voice. Between crises and technocrats who want the public to understand them (instead of “want to be understood”), we do a pretty good business merely turning passive constructions into active ones.

When a corporation speaks in the passive voice and in other ways use syntax and grammar to distort meaning, they do it almost always for one of three reasons:
1.      Bad writers
2.      A desire to make something seem more abstract or scientifically based
3.      To hide something bad.

In the case of the HMH writers of the Texas American history book, we know they are good writers from the many finely-wrought sentences we see in the text book. Why then, do they resort to these devious rhetorical devices when talking about slavery?

We know the answer: They are cravenly putting money ahead of integrity by giving into the desire of Texas school boards to whitewash slavery.

But why do the Texas school boards want to whitewash slavery? None of the people on the school boards nor any of their parents or grandparents owned slaves. Slavery ended in 1865 (although a good case can be made that the denial of civil and economic rights to blacks after the brief Reconstruction era continued the spirit of slavery).

You don’t see positive references to Hitler or Nazism in the German history textbooks. The Germans as a nation and a civil society accept the horrifying fact that their ancestors participated in or condoned one of the worst atrocities in recorded history. Virtually every town of any size in Germany has a holocaust or a Jewish museum that reminds Germans of this indelibly monstrous stain on German culture and history. Instead of trying to hide the awful facts, Germans own up to their past and make sure everyone knows that what they did was unforgiveable. It’s a good start for ensuring no reoccurrence of the Nazi era.

What would be so wrong with Texas history books explicitly admitting that slavery was an inhumane foundation for an economy and society? Instead of trying to play down the worst excesses of slavery, Texans, other southerners and the United States in general should admit how horrible slavery was. The attitude of the text books should be “Yes we did bad stuff, and we learned not to do it again.” Denying the full horror of slavery only serves to justify it.