Friday, May 28, 2010

Media Bias: Categories, Not Ideologies

The subject of media bias is a stumbling block for all Americans. It is at once both supremely important and yet hopelessly politicized. More precisely, media bias is claimed by most people to cut in one direction (namely, against their political leanings) when in fact in cuts in all sorts of directions. Think tanks and stand-alone entities have been formed by both the Left (MediaMatters) and the Right (the Media Research Center) to identify and expose instances of media bias, all while we should be focusing on biases and shortcomings of a far more fundamental nature – biases that carry truly serious consequences.

Before going forward, I must hasten to say that if it seems I’m taking a middle-ground position just to be some sort of peacemaker or conciliatory presence, well, I can understand how or why you’d arrive at such a conclusion. Rest assured, though, that as with other issues talked about on this blog, I find myself sincerely convinced that there’s enough blame (and good will) to be shared by the Left and the Right in America. The whole point of pointing a (rare and quite lonely) path toward Left-Right reconciliation is that we cannot continue to demonize the other, especially when there is so much that is wrong about our own positions, a reality owing in large part to a two-party system which simply demands a considerable amount of self-contradictory stances and concessions to the game of political hardball. Life in the 21st century has become too vast, complex and contentious for one side to own all the blame (and conversely, all the credit) for the combination of successes and failures that emerge in our time. An honest focus on various problems will involve members of the Left and Right taking ownership of their failings first, and then (but only then) making a sincere and pure-hearted effort to call the other side to a higher, nobler way of operating.

So, with that having been established, let’s go deeper into the belly of this beast we call the media.

As someone who does work within the realm of journalism, but in the less consequential world of college football (I’ve been a columnist since 2001), I and my inbox have been deluged by charges of bias from readers across the United States. The only difference is that I’ve been accused of being biased toward teams and conferences, not to political ideologies. Being biased in favor of the University of Southern California is quite different – and much less alarming – than being biased in favor of a political candidate or a political way of being. I have written op-eds for seven years in the Seattle papers (that died in the past year, as one paper has ceased to publish a print version while the other has scaled its op-ed space down to 600 words from 750; no thanks…), but I have not worked as a political or public affairs journalist. I can only claim journalistic credits as a sportswriter, so I can’t claim that I have firsthand experience of being called a biased liberal or progressive. I want that to be clear.

However, I can rightfully say that I’ve been exposed to charges of bias by a national mass readership. I can say that I’ve engaged in a give-and-take with readers and have directly observed the motivations and mechanics and manipulations that surround media bias. Working for what is a largely independent news voice (somewhat constrained at times but generally unshackled), I can also say that I’ve seen media bias at work in the college football industry and in the media-industrial complex at large. The issue of media bias is not and has not been foreign to my work and to my evolution as a citizen. I might not be the ultimate authority, but I have spent enough time in the e-mail salt mines to merit a place at the table on this often-vexing issue.

My overall view of media bias is shaped by three overarching statements: First, there’s small-b “bias,” the unique combination of inflection/emphasis/interpretation any human being will unavoidably bring to his/her writing or public commentary simply as an extension of his/her life experiences.

Even an Associated Press writer will have to make some degree of analysis or interpretation on a news story which goes beyond something you’d see on the local news at 11. Such a detail will almost inevitably color or flavor the article in a way different from another news analyst whose slight variances in interpretation could lend a notably altered voice to the article. This is just a fact of being human in a complex world; Difficult issues demand interpretation, and our biographies – the flow and progression of our lives – will create small but real particularities in the way journalists emphasize and analyze the stories they must unpack for a wide readership. This is what small-b “bias” is; it’s nothing to be concerned about, nothing to fight or lament.

The second key point about media bias is that there are instances in which an entrenchedness, a systemic or patternistic attitude toward the news of the day, infects or encompasses an issue or a larger collection of issues. This is capital-B “Bias,” and this is the abdication of journalistic standards and professional responsibility which does indeed merit vigilance from any and all corners of American society.

I think it’s fair to say – this is an indictment of all our major media organizations in America – that there is no one mass-media entity in the country which is looked to as a fair and impartial arbiter for political disputes. CNN – which touts itself as being the straight shooter in the American media cosmos – is viewed to be lousy by both the Left and the Right. MSNBC and Fox basically exist to shout down each other, and PBS – which might have once claimed credibility on a larger level – has become quite Beltway-centric in recent years (where have you gone, Robert MacNeil?) and has seen its Friday night political lineup dashed to pieces by the death of Louis Rukeyser and the good-ole-boy (and girl) network known as Washington Week in Review, a forum in which D.C. pundits get to tell each other how acceptable they all are. The McLaughlin Group – a favorite of mine when I was a teenager and early 20-something – never did provide serious intellectual debate, and I look back on my embrace of that show with a superabundant quantity of embarrassment.

It is the country’s great loss that no one person or outlet is seen as being universally respected. Bill Moyers has the universal respect of the Left, and William F. Buckley (who, for all the areas in which I disagreed with him, commanded my respect) stood as the preeminent voice of the Right, but not since Walter Cronkite has one figure truly been able to be seen as the kind of man who could fit this memorable statement: “If you’ve lost Cronkite, you’ve lost the country.” We need our journalistic outlets as a whole to earn respect from all corners of the country; if they did, various outlets like FAIR (on the Left) and NewsBusters (on the Right) wouldn’t waste their time trying to track down every little slight and grievance and offense they perceive in the mass-media realm.

My third and unifying point about media bias is this: While there’s small-b (inevitable) bias and capital-B (systemic/professionally unacceptable) Bias, the biggest lesson to realize – in politics but also in sports and other smaller media ecosystems – is that biases, be they of the small-b or capital-B variety, should be seen not in a context of liberal versus conservative or Team A versus Team B, but in a context of money, advertising and economic leverage.

The media outlets that exist in the United States are – in proportion to their size and reach – more consolidated and ever more subject to corporate, market-based forces. Media consolidation, a product of the recent compositions of the Federal Communications Commission under chairmen Michael Powell and Kevin Martin (ask me about a November 9, 2007 FCC hearing Martin convened in Seattle, no more than 10 blocks from my apartment), has made our largest news-gathering behemoths ever more monolithic in terms of the masters they ultimately serve. Ad rates, production budgets, and shares of demographics drive management’s decision-making directives, with bad results for everyone in the country.

In sports, it’s not USC football or Duke basketball that media outlets are biased in favor of (or against). Highly successful brand-name athletic programs drive sales, and that’s why they get covered more (and for some, more harshly) than they otherwise should be. In politics, of course, the stakes are far higher and the subject matter is far more urgent, which makes it that much more acutely tragic when bias is displayed.

Someone like Bill Kristol, whose views of how the Iraq War would evolve were proven to be so thoroughly wrong, should not have a seat at a pundit’s table or be given a columnist’s chair, but he is still given a visible platform that’s hardly on the margins of the media realm. Thomas Friedman – a.k.a., “Mister Six More Months Will Determine If A Military Operation in Iraq Is Successful” – has also seen his views get discredited, but he’s built quite the lucrative career as a columnist and book author. James Carville and Karl Rove – as hardball political operators for the Clinton and Bush dynasties – have no place being given a readily available microphone, but they are readily accommodated because, talk-radio style, they move the needle and generate a response. Bob Shrum (this is my personal favorite!), a man who has lost every single general-election presidential campaign in which he’s had a central advisory role, is still trotted out before the masses on cable shows and public panels. (“Bob, what does it take to manage a winning presidential campaign? What is your expert opinion?” Sigh.)

These and other people are examples of how – in a cable news culture where putting on a bunch of yakkers creates ratings-based emotionalism for hardly any production costs – having a strong and emphatic voice matters more than having a thoughtful, accurate and wise voice. This is the bias that cuts in many different directions, but almost always against enlightenment, truth, and intellectual heft.

For a media edifice concerned with money and profits instead of telling meaningful, necessary and very inconvenient truths to the populace, it stands that bias will also cut in favor of the military and against religion. War – whether you are inclined to support or oppose it – does offer a gateway to big profits for various corporations, especially since the technology of both warmaking and war management has become so diversified and sophisticated in recent years. There are so many high-tech and logistically-oriented products and services which now surround the larger enterprise of war (and caring for soldiers both injured and uninjured) that a lot of industries stand to benefit from war. This is why the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams had a deep bench of military generals who kept rotating through Mr. Williams’ nightly broadcasts more than a few years ago, in a damning and accurate story leveled by one of the New York Times’ fairer and more accomplished reporters, David Barstow (who gave the Tea Party movement a reasonably fair shake in an article published this past winter).

Mr. Williams – like the late Tim Russert and the still-present Tom Brokaw – has his NBC paycheck signed by Jack Welch of General Electric, a hubristic corporate icon who has made no secret about his ownership of his on-air talent in the past. Again, whether you approve or not of the enterprise of war, it’s a plain fact that a member of Dick Cheney’s staff spoke to the benefits of appearing on Meet the Press, with Russert as the host. The Cheney staffer said in a memo that the former Vice President could shape and manipulate the national narrative, making MTP a preferred venue for Mr. Cheney himself.

In the realm of religion, it would also make sense that the money question – tied to ratings and a desire for public viewership – would drive the tone, texture, tenor and content of mass media coverage. Naturally, the results are not good for the reputation of religion (even though there are ample reasons to view religion with sadness, dismay and disgust these days).

One of the central elements of good religion is that it is fundamentally countercultural – not in the sense that it hates the prevailing popular culture (that’s not quite right; good religion hates only sin and evil, not the human persons who participate in sin), but in the sense that it insists on a different way of being. Jesus was countercultural – and before my friends on the Right say it, I’ll say it for them: This does NOT mean Jesus and 1960s hippie radicals were and are one and the same thing. *Far* from it.

One thing that can certainly be said about Jesus as a political being – again, more clarification is needed here: this does not mean Jesus craved politics, only that he was subject to political realities like any other person – is that Jesus was very much an anti-establishment person. He spoke at appreciable length of how his kingdom was “not of this world,” that his power and authority came from God and was spiritual in nature, not of the linear political variety. This was then – and still is now – a stumbling block to human beings and how we organize various elements of our communities, our churches being one such element.

Because Jesus fought the establishment and did not play according to the rules of traditional political hardball, the powers that be looked upon him with fear and great uneasiness. If it was unsettling to the Jewish religious leaders (and Pontius Pilate) that Jesus won such an enormous following, it was just as disturbing for them – maybe more so – that the carpenter’s son from Nazareth did not play their linear political power games. He didn’t buy into commonly accepted ways of climbing to a position of muscular political power. No one should be surprised, when reading the Gospels, that Jesus met the earthly end he did in fact endure. This is what entrenched power does to people who resist it by using methods, words and actions that don’t fit the typical political power narrative.

Nothing has changed today in the realm of American media with respect to the subject of religion.

We should not be surprised that hardly anyone at a major metropolitan daily paper covers religion with maturity, nuance or layered depth. It is up to journals such as Commonweal, America, and First Things to probe the finer points of Catholic Christianity. (I’ll let Protestant brothers and sisters vouch for their own favorite journals of thought and cultural criticism.) Mainstream media coverage of religion displays hardly any ability to make sense of the religious struggle on a deeper level, precisely because mature religious investigation, scholarship and practice do not lend themselves to ratings bumps, polarizing conversations between pairs of cable yakkers, or any of the other visceral images or zingers that spice up a TV broadcast. If religion is involved in a mainstream media broadcast, it either involves sexual abuse by Catholic priests (SPICY!), affairs committed by evangelical preachers or so-called “family values” Republicans (SPICY!), or acts of terrorism committed by Muslims (DRAMATIC!).

My friends on the Right are right to decry the extensiveness with which the media has focused on affairs committed by Republican politicians who touted family values in their campaigns and made morality part of their political brand, their public political identity. Indeed, given the truly important (and terrible) things that are happening in the world, there’s little reason for a garden-variety affair to command a news cycle. Yet, because the media built up the Christian Coalition when it emerged in the 1990s under the (now discredited) Ralph Reed, the media – as it is wont to do – is overcompensating in the other direction by tearing down, with a certain bit of relish, the Mark Souders and David Vitters of the world. It was and is a disservice to the Right (not just the Left) that the mainstream press attached Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell to the core of modern-day American conservative Protestant Christianity, when pastors such as Rick Warren or Bill Hybels, among others, were doing better and more substantive work.

Yes, the media eventually gave Warren a fair measure of attention, but one must just as readily say that the press was: 1) late to the dance; 2) motivated by the commercial success of Warren’s book, The Purpose-Driven Life; and 3) attracted to Warren for things said and done in political contexts, especially the role Warren played in the 2008 presidential campaign and the 2009 inaugural. Even when a not-so-political or not-so-institutional voice entered the conversation surrounding religion in America, that voice was brought into the establishment with a helping hand from the media. This does no favors to conservative Christians, and especially not to libertarian Christians.

Stepping back for a bit, one must also deal with how coverage of religion affects the Left.

Liberals get too wrapped up in gloating over these downfalls of Republican “family values” politicians and evangelical preachers – I can lament the development because I don’t join in that parade – but where the Left has a legitimate beef with the media is that the mainstream press once ceded so much ground in the first place to people who moralized their way to political prominence. Little was made of the fact that Karl Rove placed 11 anti-gay marriage initiatives on the ballots in different states for the 2004 November elections. The move was a politically brilliant way of rallying just enough of his base in a tough re-election fight, but political brilliance and moral integrity hardly go hand-in-hand. Rove and his mentor – the late Lee Atwater – would know. (Atwater, in a documentary film on his life – a film comprised substantially of his own words and the words of confidants – arrived at a deathbed conversion with respect to the political dirty tricks he played during his career. Rove, with a reputation in Republican circles which rivals that of Atwater, has yet to have his Saul-On-The-Road-To-Damascus moment.)

The 11 gay marriage ballot initiatives were something the mainstream media should have covered, but it was so wrapped up in a hollow and typically superficial treatment of “family values” that it missed a deeper and more significant story.

In its investigation of the Catholic Church (which does indeed have a lot to apologize for, don’t get me wrong; I’ve banged that drum for quite some time), the mainstream press has provided a great service within certain contexts. But now, eight years after the Boston Globe began to lift the veil from the Church’s dark past, it does seem that the New York Times is focusing on the Church with unusually striking singularity, and without pointing the way to better means of internal Catholic governance. The good things the Boston Globe did in 2002 cannot and should not obscure a long history of pronounced anti-Catholicism in American media over the centuries. Catholic-specific journals, Left and Right, are the only venues where an American citizen will receive a probing and appropriately layered beyond-the-sound-bite treatment of the issues tearing at the fabric of American Catholicism.

Then there’s the matter of Islam. There was a flurry of exploration of Islam in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but in the years since, it’s been hard to find a mature treatment of the religion in the mainstream press, particularly on broadcast television. I wonder what Boston University’s Steven Prothro and other mainstream religious scholars would say about America’s overall religious literacy and the quality of the media coverage which reflects a nation’s religious literacy. It can’t be very high, and this is just as much a statement of the secular Left’s ignorance of religion as it is a commentary on how the Christian Right has not been served well in this realm. Media bias hurts everyone when it takes the sensationalist yet establishment-friendly tack it has most certainly acquired on the matter of religion.

There are so many more areas in which media bias doesn’t conveniently fit into anti-Left or Anti-Right. I’ll mention just one and try to wrap up this essay. The element in question is the use of polls and measures of public popularity or opinion.

Polls conducted during presidential campaigns were exposed as the limited and flawed measurements that they are in both 2000 and 2004, for one thing. Beyond that defect, presidential polls also typify the horse-race mentality which guides the mainstream media’s sadly inadequate coverage of presidential politics, dominated as it is by sound bites, the cult of personality, fake notions of “gravitas”, the fluffiness of one’s hair, and the extent to which a candidate is telegenic or “presidential” enough. This has served candidates of both parties over time, thereby hurting the opposing candidates in both parties.

Outside the realm of presidential politics, polls are also worthless because they reflect an American desire for instant reaction and instant measurement. This is an attempt to generate “fast-food history” and promote the value of a response – any response – over accuracy or the much harder journalistic work of giving people solid facts they can base their responses on in the first place.

How would John F. Kennedy’s popularity ratings have been different if the press didn’t hush up or hide his many extramarital affairs?

To the extent that Americans knew of his existence, how unpopular was Osama Bin Laden in this country, circa 1980?

To the extent that Americans knew of his existence, how unpopular was Saddam Hussein in this country, circa 1984?

How wise were Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin’s actions perceived to be in the mid-1990s? If insta-polling had been conducted then on Rubin’s activities, chances are the immensely powerful figure would have garnered stratospherically high ratings from the populace. Look at Rubin’s place in history now; ditto for Alan Greenspan. Polls are “junk food journalism,” much as – college football parallel alert! – the poll rankings in college football (especially among the nation’s coaches, who rarely if ever see other teams' games during each season) are hardly a true reflection of the quality of the nation’s football teams.

Polls are lazy, cheap and hollow. Moreover, they create – perhaps subconsciously, perhaps more overtly (in some manner for sure) – this distinctly impoverished notion that if a majority of Americans agree with or approve of an action, politicians should try to act in accordance with it. What would really help our nation and its political environment would be if news-gathering organizations provided the populace with relevant and copious information that could give citizens the same window into national and global problems that politicians have as a result of the internal briefings and memos they get on a daily basis.

Media bias: It’s so much more than liberal versus conservative. It’s about money, protecting the establishment, and serving power structures to keep people docile, in the dark, and – as the late, great media critic Neil Postman said – to perpetuate a cycle in which we are “amusing ourselves to death.”

Soldiers, Christianity and War: A Memorial Day Weekend Essay

Let’s get to the heart of what we – as human beings – should be doing in this brief time we have on earth.

We should, if at all possible, avoid killing other people. (Just wait – this will naturally be explained in a deeper context. We’re starting with basic concepts and developing frameworks in due time…)

There are many sins in the Bible and in the realm of recorded history; Saint Paul mentioned the sin against the Holy Spirit, which might understandably occupy a prominent place for a good many Christians. However, it’s hard if not impossible to conclude that the worst thing human beings have done to each other since we first walked the earth is that we kill each other. A lot.

Whether it’s an all-out war, or just one-sided, blood-soaked repression of a people by a ruthless dictatorship, or localized gun violence by gangs or a criminal element, human lives are always being cut down by others. What’s instructive to note is that human societies, over time, show little to no sign of being able (or even willing) to stop cycles of violence and put a halt to patterns of endless antagonism and distrust. The Israelis and Palestinians, Pakistan and India, the Sunnis and Shiites, and various other groups engage in a punch-and-punch-back cycle which continues relatively unabated precisely because no one of stature insists on a different way of being.

In a better world, a world dominated by Christian principles and a Christian way of life, we will identify with the One who – in the hours before his very death – told Peter, “those who live by the sword shall also perish by it.” Peter thought he was doing the right thing by lopping off the ear of the corrupt and evil high priest’s servant, but Jesus told the always-overzealous and excitable Peter to put the sword away. It’s not a rewriting of history (or of Scripture) to identify the narrative of cross and crucifixion as a study in nonviolent resistance to power. That is in fact a portion of the way in which Jesus of Nazareth laid down his life for the world. It is only a portion, but a true and unvarnished one.

Jesus did say he came not to bring peace, but a sword; naturally, though, that sword was not a physical one, but a metaphorical one. Jesus’s words point to the piercingly difficult challenge offered by the Gospel, which – as Saint Peter showed in his “dive into an empty pool basin before bothering to look” kind of life – is not very easy to live out. No one ever said that following the true path of Jesus Christ – an innocent who did not complain about the cruel and wrongful death he endured - was ever going to be easy.

This is what brings us to the political tension that the United States Government – and we, as citizens of it – must confront.

One of the more vigorous anti-war voices in the blogosphere and Twitterverse is Steve Hynd of Steve regularly offers copious links, postings and analysis of events taking place in the world’s major national security and foreign policy theaters – the Middle East, Persia, and Af/Pak in particular. As America’s presence in Afghanistan becomes only more entrenched, it’s been revealed that secretive night raids – which I had previously understood to be very rare occasions – are actually conducted with an appreciable degree of regularity. The killing of civilians in a mistaken raid is something that, as Mr. Hynd points out – happens far more regularly than the global community seems to appreciate.

I realize that I’m engaging in a certain degree of both simplification and reductionism here, but it’s not a fundamental distortion to say that the frequency of mistaken raids is one reason Mr. Hynd has cast a critical eye toward the conduct of American soldiers in Afghanistan. I’m simplifying only because the purpose of this blog is not so much about policy specifics as it is about mending the deep wounds between Left and Right, which are perfectly illustrated in this issue, namely, the conduct of American soldiers in foreign war zones.

In my (now) 13 months on Twitter – and those who follow my Twitter feed know that since the turn of the year, I’ve truly begun to include a number of politically conservative voices in my retweets – one thing that strikes me is how deeply aggrieved a number of conservatives get whenever anything is said about the conduct of U.S. soldiers in a botched raid or a misunderstanding with a convoy at a checkpoint, two very common sources of civilian deaths. I think it’s fundamentally accurate – at least on an emotional level if not as a reflection of a fundamental posture or stance – to say that American conservatives view these citations of accidental killings by American soldiers as indictments of the soldiers themselves. There is an enormous amount of frustration, fatigue and – I’m groping for the right term here – “wounded-ness” on the part of the American Right in response to the reality that our nation’s soldiers, who are putting their lives on the line, could be criticized.

At least, that’s the way conservatives feel about such criticisms, on balance.

[SIDE NOTE: People on the Left, in my opinion, do need to go out of their way to be clear on this point: Criticisms of accidental killings are reflections on the nastiness and awfulness of war, not of the soldier... at least in 98 percent of cases (and even then, the soldier who snaps is a person who deserves and demands our prayers; having one's mind and heart ground down to the breaking point is a fate I wouldn't wish on anyone).]

What Steve Hynd has pointed out is that soldiers have the right and the ability to refuse to participate in night raids (the convoy checkpoints are a much more dicey matter; I don’t know his stance on that) on the basis of “law of war” or “rule of war” principles. Mr. Hynd – and this is where we get back to the word “should” again – raised the point with me on Twitter that soldiers “should” know exactly what they’re getting into when they sign up to fight in wars. Therefore, we “should not” be so quick to absolve soldiers of blame when one of these accidents happens. I understand why this point is made and where it comes from: a desire to see an absolute minimum of killing, particularly of innocent civilians in war zones.

In accordance with Christian principles, I agree with the bottom-line insistence on seeing a minimum of killing. However, I arrive at any and all opposition to killing from a slightly different vantage point, with important implications for how we process political criticism in the most wrenching situations on the most contentious issues of our time.

I wouldn’t exactly say I’m all for giving soldiers a blank check or a free pass with respect to their conduct in war zones, but I will readily admit that I’m strongly inclined to be lenient with individual soldiers on the ground, at the bottom of the military’s larger structure. One reason to be lenient toward soldiers is that – as Mr. Hynd himself pointed out to me a few weeks ago – American soldiers receive 1/4 of the “law of war” training that a German soldier receives, and that U.S. soldiers are getting less and less training on the rules of war, something which flows from the top levels of military and political authority.

With that said, I’d be inclined to spare a soldier withering criticism and disapproval for other reasons, even if I hadn’t known the shameful extent to which soldiers are deprived of a proper military education. There’s a political reason for this, and there’s a cultural reason for this as well.

Let’s begin with the political reason.

On all issues under the sun – not just foreign-policy considerations – the experiences of my life have led me toward the realization that leaders and all people in positions of pronounced authority bear the overwhelming weight of responsibility for actions taken and results (not) gained. The president of the United States, along with leaders of Congress and top military brass, live in a rarefied world different from us commoners. They breathe different air, but they’re also given briefings and insider reports which expose them to the levers of power and the geopolitical chessboard.

Phrased much more simply, leaders have access to information and decision-making capabilities/mechanisms that you and I don’t enjoy from our cramped apartments or our modest middle-class dwellings whose second mortgages might still be outstanding at this time. Leaders – through their proximity to situations and their access to both information and experts – are in a position to see and understand the implications of their actions. For this fundamental set of reasons, they are responsible for deciding whether or not the United States (or any other nation) wages war. Soldiers might sign up to go to war, but leaders sign up to make the decisions that shape and reshape our planet. The corridors of power are the places where accidental civilian killings can truly be averted.

Now, the cultural reason why I don’t centrally blame soldiers, on balance, for civilian deaths in war zones: American culture – perhaps not writ large but certainly in some parts of the country – has written a narrative which an 18- or 21-year-old soldier-to-be is not sophisticated enough to process or overcome.

First, consider all the violence-drenched video games and big-budget movies that fill our entertainment-industrial complex. Second, consider how little you really knew about the world when you were 20 years old and trying to make sense of college.
Third, take simple note of the fact – and it is a fact (perhaps not in the way 2 + 2 = 4 is a fact, but certainly on a real cultural level) – that a significant portion of Americans think that our troops are “fighting for our freedom.”

The purpose of mentioning that last phrase – “fighting for our freedom” – is not to agree with it or disagree with it. The point of invoking that phrase is to show that if a 20-year-old man views military service as a freedom-defending enterprise, he has already identified military service as a supreme calling, the noblest and most honorable thing he can possibly do with his life. Once that fundamental decision – with all its emotional attachments and cultural roots – has been made, it’s highly unlikely that a military signee’s attitudes will be reshaped in his first few years of military service. Only when the ugly, messy complexities of war, insurgency, counterinsurgency, guerrilla warfare, and the Islamic world emerge in full relief might a soldier (might, not definitely) begin to reconsider the implications of the decision he once made as an eager 20-year-old intent on making a positive difference in the world for the country he loves so much.

This is a problem, but it’s not a problem in which the moral blame, weight and scrutiny should fall first or most heavily on the soldier. To understand this point in a fuller context, it’s time to come full circle and return to the beginning of this essay.

What should we, as human beings, be doing with our lives? For any of us who call ourselves Christian, we should be dedicated to reducing killings of all kinds. Yet – and this also applies to issues such as how to treat violent 19-year-old sex offenders who were born to a crackhead mother and an absentee father and had little chance in a life dominated by the grittiness of the inner-city streets – we are constantly confronted with tensions between the Christian ideal and the need to inject some human realism into our policies and approaches.

I encounter this sentiment so often in any political debate I enter, and it is voiced by both the Left and the Right: “Well, it’s nice that you have such high standards, Matt, and are such a purist, but this is the real world. These decisions aren’t easy. We have to be tough. We have to make ourselves safe.” One of the reasons why so many people – including those in my own family – continue to defend Barack Obama on many fronts, including and especially in Afghanistan and the use of drones in the Af/Pak region, is that “change can’t happen overnight.” Another favorite phrase that people on the Right will knowingly and rightly snicker at is, “He (Obama) inherited a terrible situation.” As though that gives Obama license to make more terrible decisions and make the situation worse.

My question for everyone on the political spectrum is this: If Christian faith really is as life-saving, as salvific and terrific, as it is supposed to be – I am a Christian, after all – why does it seem that the pseudo-religion of American nationalism, as promoted by the National Security State under presidents both Democratic and Republican, seems to hold much more emotional weight in our culture and in our national narrative and mythology? If Christian ideals and principles truly hold sway in America, why are we not following the words of Jesus and laying down our swords, knowing that the one who lives by the sword shall also perish by it? If we are truly a people of cross and resurrection, of dying to our sinful human ways so that the mind and heart of Christ might be born again in our hearts and live anew so that God’s will – not ours – may be done on earth as it is in heaven, why do we persist in fighting wars?

Why do we persist in having the death penalty?

Why do we not transform and overhaul our prison system into places where repentance, forgiveness of sins, holistic restoration, and appreciation for life are cultivated?

The American soldier does not deserve to be heavily criticized for what happens in war zones. I want my friends on the Right to know and understand that whenever I cite an accidental killing, I am pointing out the futility and hopelessness of war, with its extraordinary complexity. Soldiers are not 100 percent immune from blame, but they’re certainly placed in virtually impossible positions… first, by a president who made the fundamental choice to pursue war as a solution to a problem; second, by military commanders whose bodies aren’t vulnerable the way a frontline grunt is; third, by a national or at least semi-national culture which promotes military service as a high calling. In the grand scheme of things, American soldiers are highly sympathetic figures who deserve superabundant amounts of compassion, understanding, care, concern, and prayer.

It’s our leadership and our nation which deserve withering scrutiny and a fair share of condemnation. The Right is right to feel fatigued, exhausted and overwhelmed when soldiers are criticized, and it’s up to people on the Left to make sure that citations of civilian killings are seen as indictments of the enterprise of war itself, not as judgments against the soldiers placed in impossible situations.
What all of us as Americans must do in response, however – and this applies to anyone, liberal or conservative, who carries the banner of faith in Jesus, the crucified Christ – is to hold Christian principles as having primary importance, over and above the siren song of American nationalism and the hypermuscularity of militarism which so often accompanies it.

For the Christian believer, it’s God – and the Christ who died to advance God’s glory – first, America second. American governmental and military leaders, Right and Left, might give the impression that being a soldier is the highest form of service (and that funding war is of absolute national importance), but the life and example of Jesus clearly and unambiguously point us to a higher and decidedly different standard. Jesus used spiritual violence to the very last breath of his life, but that very point underscores the extent to which his life was free of physical violence toward other human beings.

As we contemplate the meaning and value of war, treatment of prisoners, and so many other issues under the sun, we ought to reconsider what it is we really “should” be doing with our lives on earth as American Christians.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Name of the Frame Is the Name of the Game

Too many fascinating (albeit worrisome) things are happening in the realm of American politics right now. The pace of events easily outstrips our ability to process issues. Yet, process them we must, in a robust yet civil debate where we try to make sense of our world and hash out differences like adults. This is, as Twitter friend Andy Hutchins told me earlier today, “the lifeblood of progress… of life, really.”

I have too darn much sportswriting to tend to (which has been delayed long enough), but matters of war, peace, race, rights, prison, and due process are too important to leave unattended. I simply have to devote some time in this space to the American situation before the next six weeks, which are going to kick my butt. Yes, I’m going to talk about U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, but I’m going to also talk about Rand Paul and prison terms for sex offenders as well. These are three distinctly different topics, but I hope the attempt to connect them will make sense within a specific context.

NOTE: Before going any further, please note the trajectory and parameters of today’s post: I’m not going to hash out the particulars of these topics so much as I will talk about them as manifestations of our challenge as we move forward. I won’t try to resolve these debates so much as I’ll identify their tension points and make light of our nation’s acute need to confront difficult questions with open-minded civility. When *this* blogsite – with its own missional foundation – hosts a political discussion, the main purpose is to facilitate meaningful and respectful conversation among people with distinctly different viewpoints. Once again, the purpose of this blog – when it talks about politics, not (necessarily) sports – is not to win or even advance an argument, but to promote a way of carrying ourselves in the midst of contentious debate.

On with the show, then…

* *

One of the macro-level realizations I’ve made in recent Twitter discussions – the sources of the essays I occasionally write – is that the Left and Right violently clash on so many occasions because they each fail to locate the center and source of the other side’s argument. Let’s be clear: I certainly have my own views of what’s right and wrong, but again, we must intellectually set that aside in this context, because the main point is to promote understanding, and not agreement or political conversion. (Spiritual and attitudinal conversion, yes, but not political or ideological conversion.)

Why do we fail to locate and identify the heart of the other side’s argument in a political debate? It’s because Left and Right both work from a different set of operating assumptions, a different ground of being. The Left will generally (not always, but for the most part) seek and promote the essence of what ought to happen in society; the Right will seek the doctrinally or structurally appropriate mechanism which will allow human beings to choose an ideal outcome for themselves. The Left more often stresses the human person’s unlimited ability and potential to develop, while the Right more often emphasizes the consequences of choices and actions when they prove to be harmful to society.

The Left is more optimistic or positive about human nature, the Right not nearly as much. The Left, though, views social forces as significant and substantial in their effects on the behavior of persons. The Right is generally more dismissive of social forces and promotes a culture of personal behavioral responsibility.

Read over those distinctions again. They are indeed generalizations (note the word “generally”), but is the core assessment fundamentally wrong in any of those cases? If you examine the above statements, there is at once both a consistency and a sense of contradiction about them.

First, let’s unpack the Left just a little bit: One could say that if a lefty promotes essence over doctrine, why does s/he not emphasize the substance of a person’s actions the way a conservative seems to do? With respect to the second set of distinctions, if a lefty has a more positive view of human nature, why wouldn’t s/he endorse a pure form of libertarianism on the order of what Rand and Ron Paul would advocate?

For the Right, you can basically flip those questions around: If a righty promotes doctrine over essence, why is there comparatively little allowance – at least on the surface (it’s surely more complicated when you get down to brass tacks) – for social forces that must be factored when doctrines/rules/laws are formulated? And if a righty takes a more negative/skeptical view of human nature, why such an insistence on allowing free will to run its course, given the sinful/fallen nature of human beings? Shouldn’t a skeptic of human nature be more inclined to restrain/check that nature in the defense of greater goods?

See how complex this stuff is? The scary part is that we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface.

When we – on opposite sides of the political divide – fail to locate the source and center of our opponent’s views, we will consistently fail to identify the motives we bring to the table. Information has its place in a debate, but the Left and Right constantly see that information in a different light. The attempt to do what is good and right is something we all share, but since our frameworks and first principles are different, we’ll regularly continue to assign different meanings and values to certain outcomes and actions.

In the realm of foreign policy, the Left’s first principle and animating idea is that people shouldn’t be killed unless there is absolutely no other choice and all options for diplomacy have been reasonably and comprehensively exhausted. The Right’s grounding and formative principle is that Islamic extremists already possess a mindset and intent that are beyond any and all possibility of redemption or negotiation, which means that human events have already carried America to a point where all other options have indeed been exhausted.

On the matter of Rand Paul, the Left sees, filters and frames the Kentucky Republican’s words through the prisms of the Civil Rights Movement, race, and the reality of the Jim Crow South, which then leads much of the mainstream Left to condemn Mr. Paul in the strongest possible terms and view him as a dangerous loon. The Right, in contrast, filters and frames Paul’s words through the prism of public-private domain, which touches on the rights of individuals to do what they please within private spheres of existence and influence. If everyone saw Rand Paul’s remarks through the prism of race, he’d be uniformly condemned and laughed off the political stage. If everyone saw Paul’s remarks through the prism of public-private tensions, he’d be widely seen as a misunderstood figure who needed more time and space in which to elaborate on a worthwhile set of viewpoints. Can we begin to understand why there is such a pronounced and extensive disconnect between the Left and Right in America?

On the matter of prison terms for sex offenders – brought to the public’s attention this week by a Supreme Court ruling – the Left will stress the need for rehabilitation and for every person to be given at least the chance of a new life IF s/he takes steps in the direction of self-reformation and transformation. The Right will emphasize the need to lock up a sex offender and throw away the key, given the truly awful, violent and violating nature of rape and sexual molestation. Predictably, it’s hardly surprising that – on a different but related issue – liberals oppose the death penalty while conservatives support it.

If we all saw prison/punishment issues through the need to decrease violence, we would all agree with a Left-based approach on the matter. If we all perceived incarceration issues from the standpoint of meting out justice in response to an act which forfeited individual rights and represented a declaration that a person is not fit to live in the midst of society, we would adhere to the Right and its fundamental position.

Can we see how the Left and Right – both sincerely intentioned – are ultimately identifying the heart of their causes and the core of their belief systems in different places and with divergent points of emphasis? Flowing from this, can we then take the step of beginning to realize what sets off our opponents and thereby represents a foremost obstacle to the development of meaningful and productive political conversation?

Language – any language – has code words. We might often use words we *think* are innocuous, but when a political or ideological opponent sees them, that opponent hears something different… and decidedly negative.

When a liberal invokes the Christianity of an American soldier who kills an Afghan citizen (even if it’s by mistake), a conservative’s antennae will immediately shoot up in a defensive posture, meaning that the value of a Leftist critique of war will be entirely lost on the ears of a Christian conservative reader whom the Leftist ought to want to convert.

The above principle applies very much in the other direction when the religion being discussed is Islam, and the topic is not soldiers in Afghanistan, but a terrorist incident in the United States or a violation of a young girl’s rights in Pakistan. The insistence of the Right on seeing Muslim extremists as the main problem, when a mere reference to “extremist religion” would suffice, gives liberals the impression that conservatives have it in for Muslims and for Islam in general.

We can think of so many other instances and issues in which two sides use code words to –at the very least – frame the issue in their own terms and, in particularly nasty situations, get a rise out of an opponent. There are certain themes and established narratives which so clearly irritate and inflame the other side, and any attempt to immediately invoke such narratives represents not a discussion starter, but a discussion ender.

The Left is tired of being told by the Right that it is going to go to hell. The Right is tired of being told by the Left that it’s a bunch of intolerant racists. The Left is tired of being told that it murders babies. The Right is tired of being told that it loves Wall Street. The Left flinches with profound discomfort whenever a conservative accuses it of being intolerant and hostile to free speech. The Right acquires a bunker mentality whenever American soldiers are accused of wrongdoing in war zones.

One could go on and on. The bottom line is that we have become so accustomed to political arguments and phrasings in America that the freshness and virtue of criticisms has been lost. We’re numb to the value of what an opponent has to say; we continue to absorb only the critical and harsh aspects of what our opponents tell us. We’re so fatigued and beaten-down by the other side’s criticisms that we can’t identify the merits of the ideas they’re actually trying to promote.

We don’t need to convert other people in America or anywhere else; that’s futile and unrealistic, for one thing. Moreover, a core part of being human is that we respect others’ differences, which are wrapped up in the realization that we have different journeys which shape our evolution. We have to get along with other people of good will and sincerity who see things differently. The well-being of our nation – and of the neighbor next door who disagrees with us – depends on it.

There’s more to say on this overall issue, especially in relationship to the topics I’ve briefly touched on – U.S. soldiers in war, Rand Paul, and sex offenders. Another post will follow in the next few days, and after that, a forced break from political writing will have to begin.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Classic Sports Debates, Part 1: Elite Tennis Players

Politics has been the main centerpiece of this blog's recent revival, but if you poke around the archives (the title of this blogsite means something, after all), you'll find plenty of sports content. Moreover, since Twitter - in all its grand diversity - is almost always the inspiration for new posts here, it only makes sense that we not limit ourselves to political conversation. (Besides, religion sometimes finds its way into the mix, and we'll revisit that for our politico-religious crowd before too long).

Therefore, it's worth taking a timeout from Democrats and Republicans and progressives and libertarians to deal with two debates inspired by a tweet exchange with the regularly thought-provoking Juan Jose, a friend from the TennisWorld blog and one of the most compelling voices on Twitter. Sometimes hard-edged but faithfully thoughtful, J.J. brings a welcome soulfulness to sports, and he has a 100-percent success rate in terms of stretching my mind when we talk about the fascinating arena of athletic competition.

Let's cut to the chase.

Thursday night, we debated whether Nikolay Davydenko was an elite tennis player or not. Human beings will have different definitions of "elite," much as people at different places on the political spectrum will carry different definitions of various other terms which color not only their lexicon, but their understanding of the world. (In fact, the definition of the word "elite" - when used in a political or socioeconomic context - is actually something that the Left and the Right would both do well to re-examine. But I digress... this is about sports more than anything else.)

What this sports-based post can (and should!) do for us is to help us lay out the parameters of our views. What shapes our opinions? Do we hold them in proper balance and proportion in accordance with everything else in our lives? If we don't, is there a good reason for such a divergence, a reason we can clearly articulate and then integrate into the rest of our larger perspective? I will try to establish a basic framework for my views, and I would invite Juan Jose - either in the comments section here or on Twitter - to share the intellectual structure or foundation which undergirds his understanding of this issue.

So, the question before this sports debate panel is: Should Nikolay Davydenko be considered an elite tennis player?

J.J. will have his own definition of elite (which will naturally have a lot to say about his arguments and conclusions), but here's mine:

Being "elite" as a professional athlete [not a collegiate one; huge difference!] involves three basic characteristics (in my mind, of course):

1) Achievement at a consistently high level, relative to one's abilities but also in connection to the standards one sets over the course of a professional career.

2) Achievement at a level elevated enough to command the highest degree of respect from one's peers. Performances over the course of whole seasons, extended over time, should merit status not just as an overachiever, but as a competitor of the first order. A pro athlete should be able to say that s/he maximized the opportunities that were given to him/her. This doesn't (necessarily) mean winning a majority of huge matches, but it does mean that on the days when events and circumstances were favorably aligned, openings were seized to full effect.

3) A track record of results in big tournaments/situations that is at least somewhat similar to second-tier or "regular season" outcomes.

A short summary: 1) Consistency. 2) Not just any kind of consistency, but particularly high-quality consistency. 3) Bringing the A-game in an appreciable percentage of big tournaments.

For me, Davydenko did not pass the test. It's fair to say that he meets part one of the requirements of an elite professional athlete (in this case, a tennis player), but he fails by a small to modest margin in part two. Part three destroys him.

Davydenko, given his skill set, has gotten almost everything he can out of a less-than-imposing body. One of the worker bees of men's tennis, "Kolya" found a way to make constant effort his friend in much the same way that Ivan Lendl did. Lendl said during his career that if he ever stopped playing tennis for periods of time, his rhythm and feel would evaporate; that seems to be the mindset Davydenko has applied to a career which rarely took breaks. The Russian would play in tournaments such as Tashkent while the other big dogs on the ATP Tour chose to rest. Was this a smart strategy? Maybe not, in light of persistent injuries that have kept Davydenko sidelined for much of the past 18 months. However, Davydenko's tennis has continuously rounded into form after each of his injuries. He just needs the court time needed to consolidate his improvements.

I find Davydenko, on balance, to be an admirable figure with a positive story to tell. Players with 100 times as much talent have achieved little better than Kolya has. The Nikolay Narrative is a happy one in the bigger picture, much as one could say that being a top-10 regular qualifies a tennis player as "elite" in the bigger picture.

However, I'm not really speaking in the bigger picture, and this is where things can become confusing.

While I definitely treasure, cherish and promote the achievements, virtues and values of many professional athletes, I also carry rigorous standards to certain debates. If I feel that a tennis player does not rise to the level of an elite performer, that doesn't mean I lack admiration for the man (or woman) in the arena. Nikolay Davydenko represents a success story in the tennis community, but that doesn't earn him an automatic ticket to the pantheon of elites in the sport's history.

This is all another way of saying, "Being a bleeding heart liberal in one's view of athletes and teams is not the equivalent of going all soft and gooey on the matter of standards, and relaxing restrictions/qualifications for certain distinctions and honors."

Davydenko's recent (multiple) runs of Masters Series titles, plus his ability to defeat Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in the same tournaments, have shown how well this upper-tier player can wield the stick inside a tennis rectangle. Davydenko's boatload of major-tournament quarterfinals certainly marks him as a man with more credentials and scalps than 98 percent of the rest of the men's tour. If you attached these metrics to the notion of what it means to be "elite," then you're right to view Kolya as such.

I simply think the bar needs to be set higher.

Precisely because he has reached so many quarterfinals (10), plus a number of major semifinals (4), Davydenko - while never the best player in any Big Four event he's entered - has had a fair amount of chances to find his magic moment and, at the very least, make a major final. Yet, this tremendous Masters Series player and weekly worker has never stood on court for the trophy presentation at a Grand Slam showcase... not even for the runner-up trophy.

Yes, he just wasn't good enough to beat Roger Federer in the 2006 U.S. Open semifinals, but he had Fed on the ropes in the first set of the 2007 semis, and let Federer get away in what was a sloppy match. (Andrew Burton would know. :-)

Yes, Davydenko tightened up against Federer in the 2007 French semis, so we can allow for some nerves there, but then why did Kolya not close the door on Mariano Puerta in 2005 at Roland Garros? It's fair to expect Kolya to make at least one major final, and ideally two, before we dare to accord him that laurel of laud and praise known as "elite men's tennis player." The man who works his tail off and squeezes so much success from his talents has to get past the fear of triumph in tennis's biggest and most man-making motivational moments.

Davydenko's absence of poise when in sight of prosperity and paradise is legitimately breathtaking. This sad yet undeniable reality was evinced most clearly when - in total control of that Federer fellow in the 2010 Australian Open quarters - Kolya allowed one bad shot at net to hijack his concentration, form, body language, and holistic well-being. He regrouped and briefly showed flashes of the fearsome form that carried him to the 2009 ATP World Tour Finals championship, but just when the possibility of a comeback seemed legitimate in the fourth set, Davydenko flinched one more time and faded into the background.

Overachiever? Yes.

Better on a career level than another non-elite player, David Nalbandian? Yes. (We could talk about Nalbandian's elite (non-)status in the comments section if we wanted to.)

Elite men's professional tennis player? No.

Not yet, anyway.

We have standards to uphold here, you know. Make a major final, Kolya, and then we can begin to revisit this discussion.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Claiming Our Identity

My favorite contemporary spiritual teacher, Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, counsels people to "know your identity so you can let go of it." Rohr wants human beings to acknowledge their political, religious and ideological foundations so that they can let go of them as they grow older, and gain a state where all is surrendered to God in an act of radical and complete faith. Phrased differently, Rohr is saying that we have to know who and what we are before we can give that self to God with total trust.

In the realm of politics, we can definitely use many more "surrendered" people who give their identities to God, but for now, it would simply be good if we did indeed know who and what we are... as progressives, as conservatives, as libertarians, as radicals, as reactionaries, as socialists, and everywhere else on the political spectrum.

Having attempted to generate some dialogue between and among different political camps in America, I think it's time - at least for the next few days - to get us to think not about "the other," but our own selves and the people we naturally congregate with.

What are "we progressives" about? For my friends on the Right, what does it mean to be a conservative?

We are all aware of how our views, affiliations and identities are perceived and covered in the public realm. Yes, we have different interpretations of how these perceptions operate, and we all have very significant complaints about how the mainstream media represents our views, but in the end, there is a certain meta-narrative attached to the labels and banners we choose to wear as political creatures subject to governments, laws and electoral systems.

For ourselves and for the health of our country, we do need to reach across various barriers and differences as we try to at least engage each other in conversation; that's the long-term purpose of this blog, as you know well. However, one thing that gets lost in the attempt to reach out is that we can often forget what lies within. We can lose track of who we are internally - maybe not at a soul level, but in a political and communal sense among the members of our own camps, tribes and neighborhoods. We might think we know who "we" are as progressives or conservatives, but in sharing my own story - again, I'll let others speak for themselves - I feel that while progressivism is not given a fair shake in the media, I also feel that many people who march under a progressive banner are not really living up to the principles of their stated political affiliation.

A number of the people I admire most on Twitter - progressives like Glenn Greenwald, Steve Hynd, and Chris Hedges, plus independent journalist Charles Davis - are consistently resolute in pointing out the hypocrisies of the Left, especially on matters of warmaking, torture, civil liberties, military spending, and like matters. They and other in-house critics give integrity to - if not progressivism itself - an intellectual consistency that affirms core values I've always seen as belonging to progressivism.

[NOTE: To say that progressivism - at least as I see it - upholds certain values does not even suggest that the same values are not upheld within conservatism or libertarianism. Many noble traditions hold the same values as important, just in different ways.]

I hope you can appreciate the tension at work here: Forget what the media might do to distort your identity and its attendant worldview, which encompass so many specific principles and passions. If you don't even agree with other members of your own group, you are suddenly forced to weigh your own identity with the identity of those who have splintered from you. Moreover, the fractures you see within your political family must then be assessed in light of the way the media portrays your group. Self-knowledge, plus the knowledge of how your political intimates are responding to current events, will enable you to confront misperceptions and misrepresentations which - fair or not (usually not) - affect the way your own political affiliations are viewed regionally, nationally and - in some cases - globally.

I have a very strong set of ideas about progressivism and what it ought to be. Yet, a lot of people who claim to share the same identity differ markedly on interpretations and assessments of how well (or poorly) the Obama Administration is performing. On a few issues, policy positions differ, but for the most part, the differences are exposed in the way political leaders are evaluated. I, for instance, hold an extremely negative view - as a progressive - of Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and President Obama. My perception of fellow progressives is that they are generally negative toward Reid, mildly supportive of Obama (as a whole), and generally even more supportive of Pelosi.

As for the media angle, I think Obama - as a non-white president - is appealing to demographics that are emergent in American culture (as opposed to demographics that are receding from the culture). Therefore, he is a marketable commodity and is seen as being desirable to media conglomerates' ratings points and balance sheets. Moreover, Obama - as someone who is hewing to establishment-friendly positions especially on matters of war (which is good for business, not morality) - is receiving ample support and leeway from non-Fox outlets.

My view of Pelosi's reputation in the eyes of the media is that she is - unsurprisingly - viewed as the picture of "San Francisco liberalism" when, in fact, she is the daughter of an old-style mayor from an Eastern city (Baltimore) and is therefore the child of a different sensibility. Her easy acquiescence to so-called free-trade agreements is anything but the kind of stance a true San Francisco liberal would take.

How does the media view Harry Reid? I don't have a good feel for that, but I do know that in 2006, I read a story in the Portland Oregonian which documented some very shady and dubious real-estate dealings on the part of the Senate Majority Leader. That the reports did not seem to gain much traction or hound Reid into a downward move are - for me - an indication that Reid is serving a pro-establishment function and is therefore seen as a net asset to the media-industrial complex.

Finally, I'll simply mention, in brief, what I think progressivism is about:

1) No war unless all other options have been reasonably and comprehensively exhausted, to the point that no other route possesses even the slightest possibility of success. No pre-emptive war. And if war is entered into, it should be done with a public posture of pronounced sorrow, regret, sobriety, and shame that humanity has even arrived at such a sorry state of affairs.

2) Free trade, but not unfettered free trade. Fairness needs to govern transactions, with an eye toward the rural Guatemalan farmer as well as the Chiquita banana magnate brokering the deal in a boardroom.

3) Doing the utmost to prevent or at least minimize unchosen suffering in society. This is meant to encourage a communal ethos and an appreciation for the needs of people at the bottom of the social ladder. Government should not be seen as a first responder to social problems, but it should definitely be involved if or when private citizens or local governments lack the resources needed to adequately confront those problems within a context of subsidiarity.

4) People of all races, creeds and ethnicities should be given wide latitude as long as they don't engage in - or at least demonstrate a propensity to commit - criminal activity or activity which infringes on the rights and well being of others.

Enough about my own assessments. Let's throw this open to the comment thread.

What is YOUR identity? What should YOUR group be about? What are YOUR group's core principles and values? What are the major splits within YOUR group? How is YOUR group unfairly painted by the media?

Let's flesh these things out over the next few days. I'd like to see a lot of comments, lists and follow-ups. Thanks!