Bilking People

Unless your business model depends on bilking people, there is little to fear from these new rules. 
— President Barack Obama, 

In this week's Sift:

  • Glenn Beck is Conspiring with God. I was debating whether to go public with my hunch that Fox News is turning into a cult. And then Glenn Beck announced: “God is giving a plan to me.”
  • Arizona's Occupied Territories. The new immigration law is going to isolate police, not illegal immigrants.
  • The Creativity of Goldman Sachs. It no longer goes without saying that business creativity is a good thing.
  • Short Notes. Anderson Cooper discovers the existence of facts. Jon Stewart's feud with Fox goes gospel. White privilege and the Tea Party. Why Lindsey Graham must be gay. And more.

Glenn Beck is Conspiring With God

When I wrote that piece about Fox News last week (The Doublethink Network), I thought about writing a longer piece where that incident was just one example of a larger shift at Fox: They used to be a propaganda network, but recently they've been acting more like a cult. I decided that thesis was too speculative and too based on my own subjective impressions, so it didn't make the cut. But Tuesday brought an even better example, so I'm going to run with it.

Here's the distinction I had in mind: Propaganda is about winning arguments in the larger community, while cultism is about walling yourself off from the larger community. Propaganda is designed to compete with other news sources, but cults aim for a controlled environment where the world is shut out and the audience will only hear one voice.

As a result, propagandists are careful with their lies. When I was a student, I used to practice my German by occasionally picking up the East German paper Neues Deutschland, which the university bookstore carried for some reason. I never caught them in a lie (not that I tried very hard). Instead, they created their illusions through selection and omission. 

ND's stories about the United States, for example, were all true: They wrote about serial killers, inner-city neighborhoods being destroyed by drugs, hungry children in poor rural areas, political corruption scandals, and so on. They made the U.S. sound like a hell-hole, but they did it by carefully spooning out the truth. (This is one of the most misunderstood features of the Big Lie technique. The Big Lie is not just audacious, it's conceptually big, like the idea that America is a hell-hole or that the Jews betrayed Germany in World War I. No single fact can refute it. The smaller and more observable the fact, the more truthful the propagandist needs to be. So you can get away with calling Obama a Communist, but you can't get away with calling him fat.)

Now, I doubt there was ever a period where Fox was quite that circumspect; they've always lied to a certain extent. But the main thrust of their propaganda has been selection and omission. They took quotes out of context. They emphasized stories that supported their worldview and minimized stories that didn't. They provided an uncritical platform for other people to lie. But the lies Fox told directly were usually at a higher level: Through selection and omission, they assembled baseless and fanciful stories.

A propagandist behaves that way because an observable lie creates a vulnerability. The propagandist has competition, and he'll lose to that competition if they can expose him telling clear lies.

When a propagandist does get caught in a lie, he wants the story to go away and be forgotten. So the #1 defense is just to go on: Find another bright and shiny story for your audience to jump to. If you can't get away that, you fog the story up: Roll your eyes and imply that your critics are lying without accusing them of anything specific. (“That liberal media, what else can you expect?”) Or you can exaggerate and distort the accusations made against you, expand the target, and then be outraged by the distortions you just projected onto your critics. (“How dare they compare our troops to the Nazis!”) If you think you can't even get away with that, your last resort is to admit the error, but deny any bad intent. (When Sean Hannity was caught switching tapes to exaggerate the size of a health care protest rally, he said it was “an inadvertent mistake”.)

What you don't do is bring the issue to a sharper point, implicitly admit that what you're accused of saying was  a lie, and claim that you never said it even though it's on tape and your audience probably remembers you saying it anyway. That's the behavior I was describing last week in Bill O'Reilly. (Commenter DavidWinSF expands the point to the larger conservative movement, pointing to John McCain saying “I never considered myself a maverick.“)

That's cult behavior — a bald reality-is-what-I-say-it-is claim.

Subjectively, I think I've been seeing more of it than I used to. If I had to put a beginning date on it, two events stand out: Obama's election and the rise of Glenn Beck over the earlier Fox stars like O'Reilly and Hannity. I think they're related: The failure of Bush and Obama's election created the conditions for Beck to come into his own. 

Pre-Beck, Hannity and O'Reilly were propagandists. They were charismatic (Hannity) and avuncular (O'Reilly) proponents of a pre-existing conservatism. There is no unique Hannity worldview or O'Reilly worldview. They got their talking points from elsewhere, and they ran with them.

Beck is different. What Beck offers is not conservative spin, but occult knowledge. There is a hidden order to the world, one that only Glenn Beck has been able to figure out. Often his reasoning sounds more like The DaVinci Code than like the American Enterprise Institute or the Heritage Foundation. He interprets symbols no one else is paying attention to (Beck here, rational response here), finds a sinister conspiracy in a public alliance of labor and environmental groups to promote green jobs, and even reads significance into random assemblages of letters. (South Park parody here.)

That's on TV. His radio show (Premiere, not Fox) is even wiggier. And that brings me to the example that convinced me to go ahead and write this. Tuesday (audiopartial transcript) Beck started talking about a caller who asked him to just put out his “plan”. He says he's working on it. But then he says something more: He's not working on it, he's getting it from God.

The problem, I think, is that God is giving a plan to me that is not really a plan. … The problem is that I think the plan that the Lord would have us follow is hard for people to understand. … Because of my track record with you, I beg of you to help me get this message out, and I beg of you to pray for clarity on my part. The plan that He would have me articulate, I think, to you is “Get behind me.” And I don’t mean me, I mean Him. “Get behind Me. Stand behind Me.”

Beck goes on to talk about the Founders. His impression of them is that they knew God was acting through them and so they just got out of the way and let Him work. (I wonder what Beck's supposed hero Thomas Paine — author of the skeptical classic The Age of Reason — would think about that.)

They just stood where they were supposed to stand and they said the things that they were supposed to say as He directed. … But that’s what He’s asking us to do is to stand peacefully, quietly, with anger, quiet with anger, loudly with truth. 

Faith is the answer. Get on your knees, don’t let it take a September 11th, get on your knees, please, I don’t care what church you go to, no church at all, I don’t care. Turn to Him.

This is the most popular guy on Fox, the one the others are starting to imitate. He is the biggest single influence on the Tea Party crowd, the biggest difference between them and Americans who are otherwise demographically identical.

And he's not a propagandist. He's a cult leader.

An earlier version of this article drew some comment on Daily Kos.

Arizona's Occupied Territories

Our news media serves us worst when emotions are running high. This week I saw a lot of coverage of Arizona's harsh new law targeting illegal immigrants, both before and after Governor Brewer signed it Friday. But coverage focused mostly on fear: Hispanics' fear of a Gestapo-type regime where legitimate citizens and legal aliens will have to carry documentation at all times, and white Arizonans' fear about violent crime near the border.

So while it was easy to find discussion of the bill, it was comparatively hard to figure out what it would actually do, and what Arizona law has been like up until now. Wikipedia does a good job here, and the Christian Science Monitor notes

Currently, officers can inquire about a person’s immigration status only if that person is a suspect in another crime.

The text of the law expands this to require an immigration status inquiry during “any lawful contact” with a police officer if there is “reasonable suspicion” that the person is in the United States illegally. Guidelines for “reasonable suspicion” haven't been issued yet. Governor Brewer says “racial profiling is illegal.” But whether they call it racial profiling or not, no one doubts that this law will result in Hispanic citizens being hassled in situations where whites would be left alone.  

Brewer refused to get pinned down about what would raise police suspicion, saying “I do not know what an illegal immigrant looks like.” But the bill's main sponsor admits that appearance “certainly may be a factor.” And another supporting legislator told Chris Matthews that police 

will look at the kind of dress you wear, there’s different type of attire, there’s different type of—right down to the shoes, right down to the clothes.

Translation: Professional-class Hispanics who keep their appearance up to snuff don't have to worry (unless they run into cops who just want to hassle them — which happens). But if you're brown-skinned and like to wander around in jeans and t-shirts, then you'd better carry documentation.

And that's where I lose the drift. If the bill has any justification at all, it's one of those difficult trade-offs between liberty and safety — complicated by the fact that the people who are hoping for more safety (whites) are different from the people being asked to accept less liberty (Hispanics). But if the problem is Mexican drug violence crossing the border, I don't see how this helps. I'm sure cartel hitmen can afford to dress well.

Let's back up and look at the immigration problem a little more abstractly. In general, law is strongest when both morality and community are on its side. Murder laws, for example, are uncontroversial because people generally agree that murder is wrong and that murderers have gone beyond the pale. We're happy to have the law stand between us and the murderers.

But law is weakest when morality and community pull against it. If people like me are being arrested for things that don't seem wrong to me, then I'm going to cooperate with police as little as I can. Maybe I'd turn in my brother if he were a murderer (like David Kaczynski turned in his brother when he realized that Ted was the Unabomber), but if all he did was come to America looking to work hard and make a better life for himself and his family … well, that's a little different. If the law forces me to choose, it may not like the choice I make.

That's why so many local police (with a few exceptions) have been content to let immigration be a federal problem. They want the Hispanic community to see them as protectors, not as enemies. They want the community's cooperation in solving murders, thefts, and other unambiguous crimes — precisely the sort of crimes that Arizona's white community claims to be up in arms about.

But that's not an option any more in Arizona if this law get enforced (which is doubtful). “Any lawful contact” means not just with suspects, but with victims and witnesses as well. So if a murderer walks into your bar and you call the police, then every poorly dressed Hispanic in the room is going to have his immigration status checked. Maybe it's not worth it.

In poor Hispanic neighborhoods, the likely result is that police will be isolated, not illegal immigrants. These neighborhoods may come to resemble occupied territories like the West Bank or the Sunni Triangle before the Surge. The police will be a (largely) white occupation army, enforcing white law on a community of locals who are automatically suspected of being in league with the bad guys. In such an environment the real bad guys — soldiers of the Mexican drug cartels — will hide more easily.

Policing an occupied territory is expensive, and the bill does not give local police any new funding. Like most states, Arizona is looking at a serious budget deficit.

That deficit will get worse if there is an economic boycott of Arizona. (I know I've vacationed in Sedona in the past, but Santa Fe is a nice place too.) The most interesting boycott question concerns Major League Baseball, where about 1/3 of the players are Hispanic and about half the teams have spring-training camps in Arizona. The 2011 All Star Game is currently slated for Phoenix. Will Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols be there? With documentation?

Stephen Colbert:

It's like they're saying that harassing Latinos with racial profiling is an inevitable side-effect of this law. It's not. It's the entire point of this law.

The Creativity of Goldman Sachs
I assume you have heard that the government is suing Goldman Sachs for fraud. The gist of the case is this: A hedge fund manager wanted to bet against the housing bubble, so he helped Goldman pull mortgages likely to fail into one big security (a CDO) which he could then sell short. Goldman then marketed the security without telling investors that it had been designed to fail by someone betting against it. (If it helps, the story has been set to music.)
Securities law is complicated enough that Goldman could get off, even if it did everything the SEC claims. But the case both cause and symbol of a deeper change in the public discussion. Until very recently (even after the 2008 financial meltdown) the conventional wisdom has stuck by the idea that regulation is a drag on economic growth because it “stifles business creativity” or some such thing. If government regulation caused bank profits to go down, that would be the expected bad result.
Lately, though, it has become OK to say in public that the financial sector is parasitic, and that a decline in financial-sector profits might be a good thing. That may seem obvious, but the idea seldom appeared in mainstream publications until about a year ago when The Atlantic published “The Quiet Coup“: an IMF economist putting forward the thesis that “recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform.” In his recent book Freefall, Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz writes:

An outsized financial sector's profits may come at the expense of the prosperity and efficiency of the rest of the economy.

And Paul Krugman added a week ago:

the fact is that much of the financial industry has become a racket — a game in which a handful of people are lavishly paid to mislead and exploit consumers and investors. And if we don’t lower the boom on these practices, the racket will just go on.

Increasingly, it looks like financial products became complicated not to meet the demands of a complex world, but because complicated products create more opportunities for fraud and various legal forms of bamboozlement. The government should encourage engineers and artists to be creative, but it should discourage the creativity of con-men. Financial creativity can go either way, which is why it needs regulation.
What's remarkable isn't the opinion, but that respectable people will say it out loud now.

Short Notes

This was a great week for political humor and satire. One of the week's funniest clips was intended to be serious: Anderson Cooper interviewed Arizona state legislator Cecil Ash who pushed the so-called “birther amendment” demanding that future presidential candidates produce a birth certificate before getting on the ballot. Cooper scorches Ash, to the point that the whole interview is LOL funny. When Ash claims “nobody can deny that there's been a controversy” about President Obama's birth and citizenship, Cooper responds: “There's a controversy about everything … but there are things called facts.”

Jon Stewart's feud with Fox News is getting hilariously out of hand. It started on Tax Day, when Stewart began by agreeing with Fox talking heads' assessment that the media was stereotyping the Tea Party, but then switched to a series of clips of the same talking heads stereotyping liberals. That led up to Jon's conclusion: “Go f**k yourselves.”

Well, Bernie Goldberg counter-attacked on Bill O'Reilly's show.

If you want to be a good [social commentator], you'd better find some guts. … You're not nearly as edgy as you think you are. You're just a safe Jay Leno with a much smaller audience. 

Stewart's answer Tuesday culminated with an appearance of the Go F**k Yourself Gospel Choir.

If you've had trouble explaining (or understanding) the concept of white privilege, a good place to start is Tim Wise's article “Imagine if the Tea Party Was Black.”

Imagine that hundreds of black protesters were to descend upon Washington DC and Northern Virginia, just a few miles from the Capitol and White House, armed with AK-47s, assorted handguns, and ammunition. And imagine that some of these protesters —the black protesters — spoke of the need for political revolution, and possibly even armed conflict in the event that laws they didn’t like were enforced by the government? Would these protesters — these black protesters with guns — be seen as brave defenders of the Second Amendment, or would they be viewed by most whites as a danger to the republic? 

For that matter, imagine hundreds of armed HIspanics marching on Phoenix threatening revolution if the new Arizonan immigration law is enforced. Are they patriotic Americans defending their rights against a rapacious government, or something less savory?

To ask any of these questions is to answer them. Protest is only seen as fundamentally American when those who have long had the luxury of seeing themselves as prototypically American engage in it. When the dangerous and dark “other” does so, however, it isn’t viewed as normal or natural, let alone patriotic. … And this, my friends, is what white privilege is all about. The ability to threaten others, to engage in violent and incendiary rhetoric without consequence, to be viewed as patriotic and normal no matter what you do, and never to be feared and despised as people of color would be, if they tried to get away with half the shit we do on a daily basis.

An anti-immigration activist knows why Lindsey Graham doesn't side with him: The Left must be blackmailing Graham by threatening to out him as gay. And Stephen Colbert responds: “If Lindsey Graham found men sexually attractive, why would he hang out with Joe Lieberman?”

Here's a legal fine point the Christian Legal Society is trying to sell the Supreme Court: It's wrong to discriminate against blacks or women because you're bigoted against them, but if you just honestly believe they're inferior, that's different.

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