Evolution and atheism

It is commonly charged by some religious people that acceptance of the theory of evolution by natural selection implies acceptance of atheism. Co-discovered by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace and brought to widespread public attention with the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859, this theory immediately gained opposition in Europe, primarily from clergy, with the conflict showcased by the famous debate between Bishop Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley in 1860.
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The coming war with Iran

It should be clear to everyone by now that the Bush administration and the neoconservative clique that is egging him on are pushing for military action against Iran. To my mind, the decision has already been made and what is being sought now are ways to drum up national and international support.

Just as they used the nuclear weapons scare to gin up support for the illegal, immoral and, as it turned out, ill-fated invasion of Iraq, they are returning to that same plan to see if it can work its magic again. Once again, the mainstream media is falling into its role of letting the range of debate be restricted to those narrow areas of strategy chosen by the White House and the members of the pro-war/pro-business party and its think tanks, and not giving wide publicity to the kinds of fundamental questions and information being offered by people like Gordon Prather and Charley Reese.

The task for the Bush White House is harder than it is with Iraq. Despite the repeated claims that Bush is receiving a “bounce” in the polls from the 9/11 anniversary or this or that speech, the fact is that Bush’s approval numbers seem to quickly settle into the range the range between the mid 30’s and the very low 40’s depending on who is doing the polling.

The war in Iraq has dragged on for three and a half years with no end in sight. It has resulted in huge numbers of civilians (estimated in the hundreds of thousands) there being killed either by US military action or as a result of the lawlessness and sectarian strife that is raging. Then there is the steady drip of US troop deaths, averaging around two a day, that now totals over 2,500.

The US and its allies have clearly lost control of large segments of the country such as Anbar province and are now reduced to digging trenches around Baghdad to provide at least a semblance of stability to the part of the country most visible to the international world. Despite that, the rate of killings in Iraq in the last two months have reached an average of over a hundred per day.

This is similar to Afghanistan where the resurgence of the Taliban and warlords have reduced the US-backed President Karzai to being effectively just the mayor of the capital Kabul. It is always a bad sign when a governing authority is struggling to merely maintain security in the capital city of a country.

Given that the US military is stretched so thin in Iraq and Afghanistan, you would think that the prudent course would be for the US to reject out of hand any fresh military ventures such as invading Iran, and instead hunker down and see how to salvage at least some kind of face-saving withdrawal out of Iraq and Afghanistan to avoid the ignominy of defeat in both those countries. Otherwise it will be faced with what looks to be increasingly like a pullout reminiscent of the helicopter evacuations from the roof of the Saigon embassy in the last days of the Vietnam war, images that lasted for a long time after the end of that debacle.

But in thinking this way, you would be like the colleagues of Sledge Hammer, urging rational and thoughtful actions to someone who is bent on using force and violence as the first option.

In this case, Sledge Hammer Bush is being urged to go for broke by the neoconservative clique around him and who have access to the media through the grandiosely titled Project for the New American Century. They made no secret of their plans to create the modern day equivalent of a new Roman Empire with far-flung American bases controlling every important strategic interest, and the Middle East with its vast oil reserves was a prime target for intervention. All they needed were excuses to go to war, which were trumped up against Iraq and are now being similarly manufactured against Iran. They needed national support for these imperial ambitions, and the strong emotions unleashed by the events of 9/11 were conveniently hijacked for that purpose.

The plan called for overthrowing the governments of Iraq, and then Iran, with Syria in the sights as well. Of course, Saudi Arabia, with the world’s largest oil reserves was always the biggest prize but its government was already friendly and compliant to the US, and having equally friendly governments in the other countries would ensure that it continued to be so.

That warmongering group is getting increasingly frustrated with how their grand plans have ganged agley. It must have seemed so easy on paper. First you invade Afghanistan, then you invade Iraq, and then Iran (nicely sandwiched between those two countries) would fall like a ripe fruit to a kind of pincer action. The planners seemed to be confident that the overwhelming US military might would easily overthrow the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq (which was a correct prediction) and that the people of those countries would be so delighted with the overthrow of their despotic governments (a mixed but fairly correct prediction) that they would eagerly accept US suzerainty over their countries, which was the one prediction that went disastrously wrong.

It turns out that people in general tend to not like being ruled by other countries. Having a foreign troop presence on a seemingly permanent basis inevitably leads, over time, to a resistance movement that will seek to expel it. This would not come as a surprise to anyone who has had any experience or knowledge of the history of colonial rule, but seems to be a lesson that powers with imperial ambitions have to learn from direct experience.

The danger is that the Bush/neoconservative axis is running out of time and options to achieve the next objective of overthrowing the government of Iran. Not only does the Bush administration have little more than two years left in office, the congressional elections of November run the real risk of the Republicans losing their dominance in the House of Representatives or the Senate or both. What that would mean is that the opposing faction of the pro-war/pro-business party would have the majorities and take over the chairs of some key committees. While the Democratic Party is also pro-war, and some of its leaders (like Hillary Clinton) are barely distinguishable from the neoconservatives, there are a few people in key committees who might use their increased clout to slow down and even stop the rush to war.
This is why I am somewhat fearful of the period between now and the elections. If the neoconservatives around Bush feel that time is running out and their plans to invade Iran could be thwarted as a result of the elections, we might see some bad decisions being made between now and then. Of course, it seems clear that the US does not have the troops to invade Iran the way it was done in Iraq, and other countries are not likely to supply them. Furthermore, even if such a decision were made, it would take time to set up a ground war. The Time magazine report that minesweepers are being prepared to be sent to the Straits of Hormuz is a disturbing sign that preparations may be already underway.

The current weakness of the US military’s position, with its conventional forces being bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, raises the possibility that the temptation might arise to use so-called tactical nuclear weapons, horrifying as that possibility is.

Sometimes I can reassure myself that nobody could be that insane to seriously contemplate invading Iran, let alone use nuclear weapons for that purpose. But then I realize that we have Sledge Hammer Bush in the White House, for whom the most violent and reckless option always seems to be the most attractive. It must be clear even to him that if Iraq is what defines his presdency, he will go down as one of the worst presidents in US history. The temptation will be strong to throw the dice once more, to make “success” in Iran (whatever that is) make up for his blatant failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

No reasonable person would contemplate something so stupid, of course. But we must remember that we are dealing with the determination of the neoconservatives imposing their will on a weak President. It was not for nothing that former CIA agent Ray McGovern said that during the time of former President George H. W. Bush (for whom he used to provide the daily CIA briefing) these people were called “the crazies” and were kept at arm’s length.

With Sledge Hammer Bush, the crazies have found their soul mate.

POST SCRIPT: Another episode of Religious People Behaving Badly

Jon Stewart explains the controversy over the Pope’s recent remarks that inflamed some Muslims.

Sledge Hammer Bush

In the mid-1980s there was a very funny comedy show on TV called Sledge Hammer which, alas, lasted for only two seasons. (I hear that it is now available on DVD.) The title character was a police detective who was an over-the-top parody of all the hard-boiled, tough detectives ever portrayed, taking particular aim at the iconic Dirty Harry, the character portrayed by Clint Eastwood in a series of highly popular films of that period.
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Asking the right questions about Iran

Over a year ago, I wrote a couple of posts pointing out that in important political issues, one should pay close attention to not what is being discussed or argued over, but to the questions that are not asked. (See here and here for those posts.)

The success of the media propaganda model (see here, here and here) is not in how it answers particular questions but in how it frames the debate. The real service that the media serves in advancing the interests of the pro-war/pro-business party is in narrowing the boundaries of the discussion, so that important but awkward questions are not asked and thus the official narrative is not seriously challenged.
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Film: The Road to Guantanamo

Last Sunday, I saw the powerful film The Road to Guantanamo (directed by Michael Winterbottom) at the Cleveland Cinematheque, that precious jewel in University Circle which screens films that one cannot see anywhere else.

The description of the film says that it is a “harrowing mix of documentary and reenactment. It traces how three British Muslim men who flew to a wedding in Pakistan in late 2001 ended up in Afghanistan, where they were arrested by Northern Alliance soldiers and accused of being Al Qaeda fighters. Though never charged with any crime, they spent two years in the American military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, before being released. Their testimony anchors this sobering film that won the Best Director prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.”
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Propaganda for war against Iran begins

It should be plain to everyone that the Bush White House and its neoconservative inner clique are pushing hard for a war with Iran. They have gone on a relentless offensive, trying to convince the American people that Iran is a rogue state, secretly pushing a nuclear weapons program and that their leader is some kind of mad man who seeks world domination. Predictably, comparisons with Hitler are being invoked again, just as he was with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
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Combating media propaganda

In an early posting on the media, I argued that there are some benefits to having a partisan media, where different media outlets pursue competing agendas in addition to covering the news, and where they abandon the notion of practicing “neutral”, “unbiased”, and “objective” journalism. I suggested that this kind of partisan journalism is common in other countries and that there is reason to think that the public is better served by them than by the kind of journalism practiced in the US.

There is an example in the US of the kind of partisan journalism that I am advocating and that is Fox News. The thought that I am promoting Fox News as a model to be followed may surprise readers of this blog who would know that Fox News’s politics are quite different from mine.

The problem is not that Fox news is so obviously biased, but that it operates in a climate where the ideal is that of so-called “neutral objectivity” which enables it to pretend to be something it is not. Even Fox’s slogans that it is “Fair and balanced” and “We report, you decide” signal its genuflection at the altar of what journalism should be, even as it practices a form of it that is counter to those stated goals. The problem with Fox is that in the US we have an unbalanced partisan media. There is no major media representing the political and economic interests of the working and middle class and pro-peace groups. All we have are Fox, which is openly partisan, and the other major news outlets trying to be “neutral”, but all of whom effectively serve the pro-war/pro-business elites.

In previous postings (see here, here and here), I described the filters that act to produce the kind of unbalanced journalism that we have in the US today. They are:

1. Size, ownership, and profit orientation
2. The advertising license to do business
3. Sourcing mass media news
4. Flak and the enforcers
5. Anticommunism/terrorism as a control mechanism
6. Class nature of the journalistic profession

To create a truly objective media is impossible under the current system since it requires us to be able to create a system that bypasses all these filters. Some alternative media models have tried to eliminate some of them. The BBC for example, tries to remove at least the first two filters. It does this by the British government levying a tax on all owners of radios and TV and this provides a steady revenue stream for the BBC which can operate commercial free. The existence of a Board of Governors can shield the journalists from the more obvious and direct forms of governmental control. In the US, a variation on this model is found on public radio and TV, where there is a mix of governmental subsidy and private individual membership, coupled with corporate underwriting.

This kind of funding mechanism gives a slightly greater degree of independence to the journalists and produces a slightly different form of journalism, although the other four filters still remain and prevent public broadcasting from straying too far off the reservation. The BBC and NPR are careful to not deviate too far from the pro-war/pro-business framework, and PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer is remarkable for how subservient it is to the official line, even more so than the commercial networks. So public funding does not eliminate all the problems of the media, just a few of its more obvious and obnoxious features.

It is interesting that even this slight deviation from the standard line by the BBC and NPR is enough to raise the hackles of government and corporations and thus one has the periodic calls for cutting the public subsidy. The people who call for this kind of ‘reform’ always cloak their arguments in terms of the marketplace. They always urge that public broadcasting get more money from the private sector because they know that depending on advertising revenue has a strong inhibiting effect on how the news is covered. This has already has an effect as public broadcasting has increased its dependence on corporate underwriters, thus bringing filter two back in to a greater extent.

It seems unrealistic to expect that we can create a traditional new media outlet that is free of the six biasing filters. That would require legislative action and could well produce a system that is even worse than what currently exists, one closer to the kind of direct governmental control that is found in some totalitarian societies.

This is why I recommend that the better way might be to create a media system where the biases that are already there are made manifest. If the requirement to be neutral and objective were removed, then people would be soon realize that what differentiates Fox News from CBS or CNN or any other mainstream media outlet is not that one is biased and the others are not, but that each merely serves a different faction of the ruling classes and the pro-war/pro-business party. People would then be able to shop around for other perspectives.

The advent of satellite TV now allows people to get a much wider array of news that has more diverse biases. For example, al-Jazeera provides a counter to the bias of the mainstream US media and satellite TV enables people to see it and other alternative sources from around the world. The catch is that this is expensive and out of reach of most people.

It is a success of the propaganda model that most people in the US will immediately characterize al-Jazeera as ‘biased’ compared to the American media, when the reality is that what distinguishes al-Jazeera from CNN is not that the former is biased and the latter is not, but that they each have different biases. Knowing this enables one to start reading between the lines. But because of the cost of producing and distributing television programs, even al-Jazeera is constrained by the filters that reflect the sheer economics of the business.

The internet provides a great opportunity for providing alternative news perspectives and agendas that are relatively free (at least for now) from the financial barriers to entry. The internet has many features that enable it to overcome the six filters. The cost of entry is low and one can reach vast numbers of people with very little investment. That means that almost anyone can start a media outlet and can avoid having to depend on advertising (at least somewhat) to generate revenue. That also makes one less sensitive to flak, although that still exists.

As an example, take the website Antiwar.com. This is an excellent site for news. It has a clear agenda and is unabashed about it, as its name suggests, and yet it does not spread falsehoods. It does not depend on advertising, being dependent largely on voluntary contributions of individuals like myself. In my opinion, it is one of the best sources of news and information, culling it from a wide range of primary sources from around the world and drawing in knowledgeable commentators of various political stripes, far superior to the dreary and predictable meanderings of the op-ed writers in the mainstream press. The people behind the site are not shy about revealing their libertarian/paleo-conservative political orientation, so you know what you are getting.

Cursor is another good source for information and commentary, this time from a progressive political perspective.

And of course, there are the blogs, which allow for greater participation and networking among political activists, who no longer need to depend on the big media or expensive mailings to network and inform and organize.

The danger that the low-entry cost of the internet poses to the dominance of the cozy media-business-government filtered system has not gone unrecognized. This is why there are increasing calls for regulation of the internet that would effectively limit access, or for elimination of ‘net neutrality’, i.e. for measures that would privilege groups that can pay more for access to the internet. The more the internet goes under private corporate control, the easier it would become for the filters to be brought to bear in this sector of the media too. Again, the control is unlikely to take the form of direct editorial control. It will come in the form of economics, by making the medium expensive to access so that the economic and advertising filters kick in.

Recall that in the early days of newspapers and radio, it was the low cost of entry that led to diverse and vibrant media, and in the case of newspapers, quite partisan forms of it. Newspapers in those days were not shy about pushing their agendas. That cost has now risen for newspapers, squeezing out all but the big corporations. Setting up a radio station is still cheap, oddly enough, but in that sector alternative voices they have been squeezed out by the government creating a licensing system that enables it to dole out portions of the electromagnetic spectrum to those who have the resources and clout to lobby them for it, and threatening low-power so-called ‘pirate’ stations with heavy fines and confiscation if they dare to make use of what are the public airwaves. The restrictions on ownership have now been relaxed to allow a few giants like Clear Channel to control large numbers of radio stations nationwide, thus having a strong control on the message.

So as I see it, the solution to the problem of the media lies in maintaining the low-cost entry to the internet, exposing the hidden partisan nature of the current media system, and extolling the creation of competing partisan news outlets who are free to have an overt agenda.

POST SCRIPT: Is Fox News being paid by the White House?

I have written earlier about the journalistic tactic of posing things as questions in order to avoid taking responsibility for stating the same idea as an assertion. Jon Stewart gives more examples. . .

. . . and for Jon Stewart’s and Little Richard’s reactions to Bush’s speech on Monday, see here.

How institutional filters operate

Many people have criticisms of the media. They hold the media responsible for the sorry state of civic discourse and the fact that, for example, about half the population still believes that Iraq had something to do with 9/11. Their plaintive cry “If only the media would do its proper job, then people would be better informed and we would have better government” is often heard. They wonder why the media highlights some stories and ignores others, and suspect dark motives.

In this series on the way the media operates, I have tried to steer the discussion away from issues of human motivation and bias in understanding the media. What we have is not a system of individuals consciously and deliberately steering news coverage in a particular direction which they know to be false or misleading. Only a few people at the very top of the institutions are likely to be like that.

Instead we have a system in place that has the effect of weeding out all but those individuals who view the news in a particular way. Most of the journalists who remain and prosper in the system are those who have internalized the values of the corporate media system and its rules of operation. Rather than thinking of themselves as doing something that is less than good journalism, they actually think that they are upholding its finest traditions, of maintaining “objectivity” and “neutrality”. So by and large they will be able to work with a clear conscience. That is the sign of a really good propaganda model. People cannot fake things on a consistent basis for a long time. If individual journalists were writing and saying things that they did not themselves believe in, it would soon become obvious and they would not be effective.

All large institutions have such filters that weed out people with ideas that oppose its basic interests. For example, the advertising industry is unlikely to be congenial to those who feel that telling the truth about products, both good and bad, is important in creating an informed consumer. Those people, even if for some reason they chose to enter that profession, are likely to be weeded out quite early. The people who remain and succeed are not necessarily intellectually dishonest. They are people who think that it is better to dwell on the positive rather than the negative, and that the marketplace as a whole will be the best judge of what is good and bad, not individuals, and that it is not their job to make such judgments on behalf of others. They see their job as to present their product in the best possible light.

Universities are also not immune from this kind of filtering. They tend to filter out those people who do not value knowledge, however esoteric, for its own sake. People who think that the only knowledge of any value is that which has a practical and immediate payoff are not likely to find universities to be congenial places for them, except in a few departments like engineering or business. The converse is true for manufacturing industries. Those places have little use for people who like to think about ideas in the abstract and are unable to translate those ideas into actual products.

The problem with the media is not that it has such filters in place that result in producing “news” that suits the needs of the pro-war/pro-business one party state. The problem is that the media is not perceived by the public as having any kind of bias at all. And it is this that makes it dangerous.

Most people are savvy enough to realize that the advertisements they see for products are not produced by impartial people. They are aware that consumers of print and video media are the targets of a careful campaign to persuade them to adopt a particular point of view, which is that the product being advertised is something they need (which may not be the case) and that it is the best among the options available to satisfy that manufactured need (which may not be true).

Despite this self-awareness, it is a dubious tribute to Madison Avenue that advertising is so successful in persuading people to purchase products. But even advertisers know that advertising is even more successful when people are not consciously aware that they are being marketed to. Hence we have the more recent innovations of product placement in films and TV shows, and having seemingly ordinary people in places like bars praise the virtues of products to other patrons, thus creating what seems to be a spontaneous “buzz” for a product. ‘Word of mouth’ praise from friends and acquaintances is more effective than being pitched something by people who are paid to do so.

The success of the propaganda media is likewise dependent on most people not realizing that they are being sold a product, in this case a particular slant on “the news.” For example, I was sitting in a restaurant one day and a person at another table was recommending The O’Reilly Factor to his companions as a show that “tells it like it is” with “no spin.” This person had clearly bought into the slogans that are carefully marketed by news organizations, that they are fair and balanced. Such people are for more susceptible to propaganda than those who understand the invisible drivers at work in creating the news.

Next in the series: How this knowledge can be used to build a better news system.

POST SCRIPT: Happy first birthday, Baxter!

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The class nature of journalists

There is one final filter that Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman do not include in their in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent that I think is worthy of addition, and that is the changing class nature of journalists and the professional paths that have developed.

Journalists in the past could enter the profession with little formal education. They could join a newspaper after high school as copy boys (and be essentially gofers), and then work their way up the ladder to become full-fledged reporters. They pretty much learned their profession on the job, by observing the reporters in the newspaper and being mentored by them.

An important consequence of this kind of career path is that the profession was open to a wide array of people. In particular, there was little in the way of barriers, especially income and wealth barriers, to entry in the profession. Furthermore, the very fact that journalism was so open made the profession less desirable to the members of the professional classes and people in the upper income brackets. Such people were more likely to steer their children to the prestigious professions of medicine and law and the corporate world.
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The final two filters

In the previous posting in this series, I wrote about how Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent provide a good model for how a sophisticated propaganda model works. They point out that rather than direct control of news, what exists in the US is a system of five filters that has the effect of steadily weeding out of the system those who do not serve the needs of the dominant interests. In the previous post, I described three of the filters. Today, I will discuss the other two.
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