European Parliament Elections – Free For All

A free ramble touching on elections, patriotism, true love, media cowardice, and referencing such diverse characters as Patrick McGoohan, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, James O’Brien, Nigel Farage, and Theresa May. Also reprising quotes on the problem of false balance.

“Free For All” was the title of an episode of The Prisoner which first aired in 1967. The title is sardonic because residents of The Village were not free. Elections weren’t free either, but they did descend into a free-for-all:

I always think of this Prisoner episode around election time, especially as politics grows more and more surreal, and what is odd or intolerable is “normalized” (to use a word which was absent from political discourse in 1967).

The Prisoner is (in part) about people living in a totalitarian technocracy; and what especially irks the main character (played by Patrick McGoohan) is that they have normalized the intolerable conditions under which they live. They enjoy electioneering as a community activity in spite of knowing it’s a complete sham; but perhaps “enjoy” is not quite the right word. They take perverse pleasure in playing out a role assigned to them with exaggerated gusto. So, these cheering crowds have a sinister quality, like those cheering for Mussolini in Fellini’s Amarcord.

It would be tempting to claim that I see the same sinister quality at Trump rallies or Brexit Party rallies, but in truth that is not the case. Those real world political rallies tend to be boring and insipid, because they’re attended primarily by people who don’t see very deeply into the nature of reality, or the character and motivations of the politicians they’re supporting. Most attendees are not downright evil or sinister, just frightfully dim, and prone to the character flaws which lack of insight can give rise to.

A theme which has emerged in some of my posts is: What is a genuine emotion? Since politicians and other salespeople are constantly pushing our emotional hot buttons in order to manipulate us, how can we be more discriminating in our responses to their stimuli, to propaganda? Can we learn to distinguish between emotions which are cheap and easy to produce (even through lying) and emotions which come from the core of our being and seem to radiate truth, or connect us with something truly eternal and greater than ourselves?

Patriotism is one of those emotions it’s difficult to question. Maybe people who attend Trump or Brexit Party rallies are genuinely patriotic. Or maybe like love (or what sometimes passes for love), patriotism can exist at a multitude of levels — some shallow, some more profound.

On her 1968 double album Any Day Now, Joan Baez sang nothing but Bob Dylan songs, including two which show how love can be viewed both cynically and idealistically. These are “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”:

Seems like only yesterday
I left my mind behind
Down in the Gypsy Cafe
With a friend of a friend of mine
Who sat his baby heavy on her knee
Yet spoke of life most free from slavery
With eyes that showed no trace of misery
The phrase in connection first with she occurred
That love is just a four-letter word

Outside a rattling storefront window
Cats meowed till the break of day
Me, I kept my mouth shut to you
I had no words to say
My experience was limited and underfed
You were talking while I hid
To the one who was the father of your kid
You probably didn’t think I did, but I heard
You say that love is just a four-letter word

I said goodbye unnoticed
Pushed forth into my own games
Drifting in and out of lifetimes
Unmentionable by name
Searching for my double, looking for
Complete evaporation to the core
Though I tried and failed at finding any door
I must have thought that there was nothing more absurd
Than that love is just a four-letter word

Though I never knew just what you meant
When you were speaking to your man
I can only think in terms of me
And now I understand
After waking enough times to think I see
The Holy Kiss that’s supposed to last eternity
Blow up in smoke, its destiny
Falls on strangers, travels free
Yes, I know now, traps are only set by me
And I do not really need to be assured
That love is just a four-letter word

Strange it is to be beside you
Many years, the tables turned
You’d probably not believe me
If I told you all I’ve learned
And it is very, very weird indeed
To hear words like forever, fleets of
Ships run through my mind, I cannot cheat
It’s like looking in a teacher’s face complete
I can say nothing to you but repeat what I heard
That love is just a four-letter word

My love, she speaks like silence
Without ideals or violence
She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful
Yet she’s true like ice, like fire

People carry roses
And make promises by the hour
My love she laughs like the flowers
Valentines can’t buy her

In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall

Some speak of the future
My love, she speaks softly
She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all

The cloak and dagger dangles
Madams light the candles
In ceremonies of the horsemen
Even the pawn must hold a grudge

Statues made of matchsticks
Crumble into one another
My love winks, she does not bother
She knows too much to argue or to judge

The bridge at midnight trembles
The country doctor rambles
Bankers’ nieces seek perfection
Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring

The wind howls like a hammer
The night wind blows cold and rainy
My love, she’s like some raven
At my window with a broken wing

Love falls on strangers, travels free, and love (or what passes for love) sometimes results in loveless marriages and unwanted, unloved children; but love can also be true and constant, like ice, like fire.

Truth and constancy are wanting in our politicians, and in advertisers who flog us their products; and we have normalized the phenomenon of being lied to. These are, if not causes, at least symptoms of what ails us in modern life.

This allows me to segue into a recent interview with James O’Brien — a British journalist, radio talk show host, and author:

One of O’Brien’s points is that the media are not being honest or scrupulous in their treatment of our would-be leaders — not practicing good journalism. Their simplistic formula for a news segment is to get two people who hold opposing views to slug it out for a few minutes (or a few paragraphs). Lacking any reference point or North Star pointing towards truth, the outcome is decided more or less on force of personality, or who can most effectively appeal to base sentiments. A bounder like Nigel Farage rises to power because practically no one in the UK media is truth-squading him.

These problems are not new, nor is this analysis. A number of media outlets have, at one time or another, called attention to the problem of false balance and pledged to try and rectify or overcome it; yet we are still where we are. The BBC (which is, after all, a governmental institution) continues to believe — or act as if they believed — that pointing out when a politician is lying outright or contradicting his/her own prior statements would somehow be a “biased” thing to do. That culture in which truth and lies are treated as if coequal needs to change.

In a 2016 post, “Better Reporting on Religious and Ethnic Minorities,” I discussed the problem of false balance, and compiled some potent quotes which I reprise here. Rem Rieder writes:

No matter what the news media’s many critics believe, most journalists endeavor to be fair, to give both sides rather than choose sides. In that effort, there’s a tendency to print what someone says, print what the other side says and call it a day.

The trouble is, there isn’t always equal merit on both sides. So, in instances where one side is largely fact-based, and the other is spouting obvious nonsense, treating both sides equally isn’t balanced. It’s misleading.

Often journalists are reluctant to state the conclusions that stem from their reporting, out of the concern that they will appear partisan or biased. But just laying out both positions without going further in an effort to establish the truth can create [false balance]. And that doesn’t do much good for the readers and the viewers.

Journalism isn’t stenography. It’s not treating everything the same when it’s not the same. It’s about giving citizens information about public affairs that is as accurate as possible.

— Rem Rieder, “The danger of false balance in journalism,” USA Today

Katrina vanden Heuvel writes:

False equivalence in the media — giving equal weight to unsupported or even discredited claims for the sake of appearing impartial — is not unusual. … There are many sides to almost every story, but that doesn’t mean they are automatically equal. Unfortunately, too much of the media has become increasingly fixated on finding “balance,” even if it means presenting fiction on par with fact.

Ultimately, forcing balance where there is none is not journalistically ethical. It’s not part of the proud and essential tradition of truth telling and evaluation, either. At best, it’s lazy. At worst, it’s an abdication of the media’s responsibility.

— Katrina vanden Heuvel, “The distorting reality of ‘false balance’ in the media,” The Washington Post

According to The Economist:

Balance is easy and cheap. In political journalism, a vitriolic quote from each side and a punchy headline is all that is needed to feed the news machine. Who cares if substance and analysis are thrown to the wind? Journalism is a commodity. There is always a need for more “inventory” on which to place ads. Journalism, real journalism — the pursuit of truth — also creates inventory, but not as much, and it is difficult, costly and time-consuming. Far easier to bolt together a few pieces of trivial comment from political pundits and move on.

— “The balance trap,” The Economist

Maragaret Sullivan, [former] Public Editor at The New York Times, writes:

Hardly anything sends Times readers for their boxing gloves as quickly as does the practice of “he said/she said” reporting. (Here’s an extreme and made-up example just for the sake of illustration: “Some sources believe that the earth is flat; others insist that it is round.”) … In general, The Times tries to avoid letting two sides of a debate get equal time when one of them represents an established truth[.]

— Margaret Sullivan, “Another Outbreak of ‘False Balance’?” The New York Times

Ms. Sullivan also writes:

Simply put, false balance is the journalistic practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of an established truth on one side. And many people are fed up with it. They don’t want to hear lies or half-truths given credence on one side, and shot down on the other. They want some real answers.

“Recently, there’s been pressure to be more aggressive on fact-checking and truth-squading,” said Richard Stevenson, The Times’s political editor. “It’s one of the most positive trends in journalism that I can remember.”

You’re entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts, goes the line from [late Senator] Daniel Patrick Moynihan[.] … The trick, of course, is to determine those facts, to identify the established truth.

The associate managing editor for standards, Philip B. Corbett, puts it this way: “I think editors and reporters are more willing now than in the past to drill down into claims and assertions, in politics and other areas, and really try to help readers sort out conflicting claims.”

Journalists need to make every effort to get beyond the spin and help readers know what to believe, to help them make their way through complicated and contentious subjects. The more news organizations can state established truths and stand by them, the better off the readership — and the democracy — will be.

— Margaret Sullivan, “He Said, She Said, and the Truth,” The New York Times

In endorsing a policy adopted by National Public Radio, James Fallows writes:

With these words, NPR commits itself as an organization to avoid the worst excesses of “he said, she said” journalism. It says to itself that a report characterized by false balance is a false report. It introduces a new and potentially powerful concept of fairness: being “fair to the truth,” which as we know is not always evenly distributed among the sides in a public dispute.

— James Fallows, “NPR Tackles ‘False Equivalence,’” The Atlantic

False balance can occur when journalists don’t distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources, or between scholarly research and popular prejudice. They fail to locate the “established truth.”

Not that truth-squading is a universal panacea. Some people simply prefer lies. As the Fleetwood Mac song goes, “Tell me lies, tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies.” (Or as is the case with some political or anti-religious propaganda: “Tell me ugly, hateful lies that just happen to coincide with my biased world view.”)

How do you fight feelings with facts? Some people claim it isn’t possible. But as I discuss elsewhere:

Offering a positive vision is helpful. Facts are also helpful to people who are halfway reasonable. A few people do change their minds in response to higher quality information flowing in… Insight is needed, but insight cannot be bought as cheaply as propaganda. Insight can come from many sources, including meditation, spiritual readings, and self-reflection.

Insight can also come from better education in civics. Civics courses need to be updated so that people emerge from the educational system better-armed to deal with propaganda, including propaganda which may target them via social media.

Insight and education are tools that can be used to lessen religious hatred. A high school and college textbook like Mary Pat Fisher’s excellent Living Religions  can help people gain insight into the world’s religions. Where there is insight and understanding, it is difficult for intolerance to take root. The feeling vs. fact dichotomy is not insoluble. Where people are exposed to an environment which stresses tolerance, this can have a mediating effect. Understanding which encompasses both head and heart may ensue.

Returning to the subject of James O’Brien: He can be a bit dark and cynical because he sees through much of what is false in British politics. Maybe his insights would find more converts if he could sprinkle in a few dashes of hope. For, yes there is hope — if not in politics, at least in music, art, and poetry, and (of course) spirituality. There are realms untouched and untrammelled by the lies of politicians or advertisers — realms of peace, bliss, and beauty.

As for the problems of this world… Another issue with the media is that they accept things at face value when they ought to be questioning what they’re being handed. A thing is often not what it says on the tin!

Theresa May says she has a brand spanking new deal for Parliament to approve regarding Brexit. So the mimeo-mad press writes headlines like “THERESA MAY’S NEW DEAL” or “THERESA MAY OFFERS 2ND REFERENDUM.” What nonsense! Has Theresa May gone back to Brussels and negotiated a new deal with the EU? No! It’s the same old deal for the umpteenth time, tarted up a bit to tempt those on the cusp. Does she now support a second referendum? No! She’s offering to vote on having a vote, but only after the House of Commons approves her deal. Then she’ll whip her party to vote as a bloc against a second referendum. It’s all smoke and mirrors; Labour is right to have no part of it. Any promises she makes on her way out the door can easily be reneged on by the next administration.

“You don’t like my anchovy-and-marmalade sandwich? Here, I’ll wrap it in some seaweed and put some lipstick on it. Now it’s a new sandwich! Isn’t it appealing?” “Oh yes, Auntie May,” reply the press. “Please give us more so we can write headlines about it!”

In spite of these discouraging signs, and the potential for Nigel Farage to win big in today’s European Parliament elections, I do remain hopeful. Truth does win out in the end, but it can take a very long time. One should not lose hope! It is better to be in the minority that sees clearly and speaks rightly than to condition oneself to enjoy anchovy-and-marmalade sandwiches and regard them as manna from Heaven!

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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