Friday, November 23, 2007

Matt 24 Watch, 39: On the triumph of agenda and spin over truthfulness and balance in the academy, the media and the public square

The academy, the media and the public square are three key institutions for the preservation of liberty and the fostering of progress.

So, when -- as is, sadly, increasingly plain -- these three institutions in our Caribbean region and the wider arena of Western civilisation become increasingly dominated by agenda and spin that is serious cause for concern.

But, some will protest, such is not really the case --
the above is just crying "sour grapes" because theological and/or political conservatives are losing the freely-fought battle of ideas as secular progressives continue their centuries long triumph in our civilisation, "enlightening" and "liberating" us from the dark night of theocratic domination by those who would take us back to the dark ages of religious tyranny under the spiritual heirs of Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition.


In fact, first, the -- too often unacknowledged or dismissed or even hotly denied -- contribution
of people and movements anchored in the Biblical worldview to the rise of modern liberty, and in particular, the similarly in large part Biblically anchored contribution of the abolitionist movement to the liberation of our ancestors from slavery was as real as the anti-clericalist secular tyranny of the French Revolution in the name of liberty, equality and fraternity.

For, finite, fallible, fallen, too often ill-willed men will always find a way to do evil in the name of doing good, regardless of the reigning orthodoxy of the day. Just as, through God's grace, others will eventually rise up to stand for the right.

So, the challenges of oppression, injustice and tyranny and the consequent need to reform and liberate are human challenges, not specifically connected to any one specific religious or secular outlook. And, as Bernard Lewis pointed out about the sins and triumphs of Western culture:
. . . revulsion against America, more generally against the West, is by no means limited to the Muslim world . . . . The accusations are familiar. We of the West are accused of sexism, racism, and imperialism, institutionalized in patriarchy and slavery, tyranny and exploitation. To these charges, and to others as heinous, we have no option but to plead guilty -- not as Americans, nor yet as Westerners, but simply as human beings, as members of the human race. In none of these sins are we the only sinners, and in some of them we are very far from being the worst . . . .

Slavery is today universally denounced as an offense against humanity, but within living memory it has been practiced and even defended as a necessary institution, established and regulated by divine law. [NB: Slavery was only officially abolished in the Islamic theocracy of Saudi Arabia in 1962.] The peculiarity of the peculiar institution, as Americans once called it, lay not in its existence but in its abolition. Westerners were the first to break the consensus of acceptance and to outlaw slavery, first at home, then in the other territories they controlled, and finally wherever in the world they were able to exercise power or influence -- in a word, by means of imperialism . . . .

In having practiced sexism, racism, and imperialism, the West was merely following the common practice of mankind through the millennia of recorded history. Where it is distinct from all other civilizations is in having recognized, named, and tried, not entirely without success, to remedy these historic diseases. And that is surely a matter for congratulation, not condemnation.
What Mr Lewis leaves implicit is the fact that -- once the Bible was put in the hands of the ordinary man some 500 years ago -- Christian people and movements, acting out of explicitly biblical, Judaeo-Christian ethics, had a lot to do with that process of exposure, correction and liberation. Often, at terrible personal cost.

So, I must insist on my point. For, as the recent incident of the public lecture held here in Montserrat under the auspices of the local centre of a regional university -- where not only this present author but also the Christian faith and civilisation were slandered and history was sadly distorted -- plainly illustrates, the issue of the triumph of agenda and spin over truthfulness and balance is an all too real and relevant one.

Some of that is a hangover from the days when Marxism dominated our regional university, in parts now displaced to other bases for playing out the latest forms of dialectic style radicalism. Only, to fall afoul of the same problem yet again and again: extremes provoke extremes, but the point of balance is the true opposite to all extremes.

(But then, one of the central lessons of history is that by and large we refuse to learn from it. No wonder it is so hard to find the point of balance.)

Another major dimension of it is the surging into our region of the de-Christianising tidal wave from the North, especially North America.

For instance, since, proverbially: "if America sneezes, the Caribbean catches flu," let us take careful note of what Bruce Thornton observes, in a recent issue of New York's quarterly City Journal, on the state of the American university:
Political free speech serves a practical end: to discover the best public policies through citizens’ raucous, sometimes woolly discussion in the town square. As Mill put it, “We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.” Academic free speech, on the other hand, has its own peculiar purposes and requirements. The purpose of academic freedom is to encourage the search for truth and the exposure of error, an endeavor conducted through what Matthew Arnold called “the free play of the mind on all subjects.” . . . .

At the same time, since academic intellectuals are supposed to be trained in the principles of sound thinking, one should expect higher standards for the ideas considered on campus than for those that contest in the town square . . . .

The [ongoing] politicization of the university has transformed academic free speech into something more like the no-holds-barred, anything-goes political speech of the town square. Ideologues have discarded the university’s higher intellectual standards, deriding them as ivory-tower excuses for avoiding political engagement. This decline of academic free speech into activist politics and ideology has not even been consistent. The political prejudices of the professoriate—a continuum that starts at liberal and ends at radical leftist—have favored liberal and leftist speakers, thus narrowing the range of ideas offered to the campus community.
In short, the university movement in North America has been in large part captured by a particular portion of the North American [and European] ideological spectrum, one largely associated with the more "Liberal" wings of their Democratic Party.

In turn, that is highly significant, given the increasingly discernible influence of that party's approaches on our region's politics, opinions and policy agendas. For, it is little known and less understood in our region, that the US' political and media culture, over the past generation, has been undergoing a steadily accelerating, significant, evolutionary materialism-anchored radically anti-Christian secular humanist trend, as Louis Bolce has pointed out in his Fall, 2002 Public Interest article, "
Our secularist democratic party":

The "culture wars" is the controversial metaphor used to describe the restructuring of religious and cultural conflict in the United States since the 1960s . . . On the orthodox side are persons who locate moral authority in a transcendent source, such as God or the Bible. Orthodox morality, according to Hunter, adheres to an absolute standard of right and wrong and is based on universalistic principles. Progressivists, in contrast, embrace a humanistic ethic drawn from reason, science, and personal experience. Progressivist moral rules are "loose-bounded," pluralistic, and relative to circumstance. This new cleavage cuts across the major American faith traditions and most denominations . . . .

[P]rior to the late 1960s, there was something of a tacit commitment among elites in both parties to the traditional Judeo-Christian teachings regarding authority, sexual mores, and the family. This consensus was shattered in 1972 when the Democratic party was captured by a faction whose cultural reform agenda was perceived by many (both inside and outside the convention) as antagonistic to traditional religious values. The political scientist Geoffrey Layman has defined this block, the largest in the party, as "secularists,"--that is, self-identified agnostics, atheists, and persons who never or seldom attend religious services. Over a third of white delegates fit this description, a remarkable figure considering that, according to James Davison Hunter, only about 5 percent of the population in 1972 could be described as secularists . . . .

The religious and cultural cleavages that roiled the Democrats in 1972 were nonexistent at the Republican convention, where mainline Protestants still dominated. The GOP platform that year merely reiterated cultural positions the party had endorsed in past platforms, for example, support for school prayer and the Equal Rights Amendment. The Republicans, by default more than by overt action, became the traditionalist party. "The partisan differences that emerged in 1972," writes Layman in his book The Great Divide, "were not caused by any sudden increase in the religious and cultural traditionalism of the Republican activists but instead by the pervasive secularism and cultural liberalism of the Democratic supporters of George McGovern." . . . . The secularist putsch in the Democratic party had the opposite effect on its rival, which over time came to be seen as more hospitable to religious traditionalists and less appealing to more secular Republicans. What was at first an intraparty culture war among Democratic elites became by the 1980s an interparty culture war . . . . cultural and religion-based evaluations have increased since the first Clinton election [in 1992]. Moreover, during this time span secularists and traditionalists have voiced mirror-opposite "likes" and "dislikes" about the parties' stances toward "religious people," the "Christian Right," "abortion," "gay rights," "school prayer," and other cultural concerns. In the 2000 ANES survey, for example, secularists were nearly four times more likely to volunteer religion-based dislikes about groups and positions associated with the Republican party than were traditionalists, who in turn were four times more likely to voice cultural or religious reasons for disliking the Democratic party.
So, on the evidence of the history just outlined, the polarising wedge that drove the American public apart into the culture war that now rages at large, came from the secularists -- not the orthodox traditionalists. And, it is therefore patently unfair to characterise their essentially defensive and conservative response or reaction as the attempted imposition of an unprecedented, dangerous, radical theocratic agenda. But, sadly, politics is hardly a context where we can generally expect to find a truthful, fair and balanced presentation of issues.

Traditionally, though, in democratic societies, the media are seen as the bastion of liberty, and the fair-minded watchdog over our political arena. So, let us now turn to how the above political polarisation and conflict has been covered in the dominant American media.

The culture war, of course, has sharply accelerated ever since 1992, and has been widely reported in the major media -- but with a telling twist, one that reflects the dominant culture of the major media houses (and behind them, that of the ideological groups that dominate the Academy):
The importance of . . . [The New York Times and The Washington Post (which also publishes Newsweek)] is aptly summarized by former CBS correspondent Bernard Goldberg: "Many TV journalists simply don't know what to think about certain issues until the New York Times and Washington Post tell them what to think. Those big, important newspapers set the agenda that network news people follow." At the very least, these papers' coverage of religion in politics can be considered bell-weathers of elite understandings of the religious divide in the electorate . . . . Between 1990 and 2000, the Times and the Post published a total of 14 stories that pointed out that the Republican and Democratic parties were split along a traditionalist-secularist divide. Readers of the Times and Post were more than twice as likely to find news accounts about clashes between religious traditionalists and moderates within the Republican party than stories about religious divisions between Republicans and Democrats . . . .

The most striking finding to emerge from these comparisons is the paucity of news stories and commentaries that identify secularists or the secularist outlook with the Democratic party, particularly when contrasted to the large number of stories and editorials in both papers about the Republican party's relationship with evangelical and fundamentalist Christians (43 stories and 682 stories, respectively) . . . .

Studies by public-opinion researchers have shown that the news media powerfully shapes the way the public views social groups. And thus it is not surprising that ANES survey results indicate that the more attention a person pays to the national political news media, and especially to television news, the more likely is that individual to believe that Christian fundamentalists are ideologically extreme and politically militant. Those who read and watch national news media are also more likely to conflate evangelicals and Christian fundamentalists with Religious Right organizations and to make voting decisions and judgments about public-policy issues based on the antipathy they feel toward both these groups.
In short, once we probe beyond the surface clutter of politics, scandals and the glitter of information-age media presentations, we see that truthfulness, fairness and balance have consistently been given short shrift by the key media houses, in favour of an agenda-serving presentation of the issues in the international media that increasingly influence us in our own region.

This agenda has therefore decisively shaped how a great many Americans view the many issues connected to the accelerating advance of the secularist agenda in their own country, and the wider world.

Nor is this sort of take-over by the secular humanists isolated to North America. In fact it is only because of the strong presence and abundant capacity of traditionalists in the American scene that we have had an open, sustained conflict. For, as Francis Schaeffer long ago observed, secular humanism has long since triumphed in Western Europe. Indeed, that is exactly what one would pick up if s/he were to carefully analyse and investigate the pattern of reportage and commentary on say BBC [The British Broadcasting Corporation], for two generations now the most respected media house in the Caribbean -- ever since Radio spread across our region as a mass phenomenon.

That brings us full circle: right back home to the Caribbean.

It is immediately clear that we now have to be far more discerning in what we accept from our political leaders, our media houses and our academics. For, what we saw with the recent public lecture here in Montserrat, and with the earlier attempted one-sided revision of our history to make it out that the majority of slaves in our region were Muslims, is likely to be from now on an increasingly common and forcefully pushed trend as the de-Christianising tidal wave from the North and the Islamist one from the East send surge after surge into our region.

So, we must now urgently develop the ability to recognise, evaluate, resist and refute spin and bias, and we will need to develop the capacity to counter the impact of various radical, secularist and islamist etc agendas in our politics, in our education systems, in the popular media and popular culture (especially music), in our colleges and universities and in the region's public square and halls of power. Indeed, even among our churches.

That is a tall order indeed, but we have no choice -- if we don't want to allow the waves to sweep in in upon us unhindered, creating chaos as they go.

So, again, the challenge we face: why not now? why not here? why not us? END

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