Worldviews Black and White

On Sunday, the Washington Post had an article tracing the influence of what it called “shadow charities” on shaping the political climate that led to the election of Donald Trump. It focused upon the career of

David Horowitz, a former ’60s radical who became an intellectual godfather to the far right through his writings and his work at a charity, the David Horowitz Freedom Center. Since its formation in 1988, the Freedom Center has helped cultivate a generation of political warriors seeking to upend the Washington establishment. These warriors include some of the most powerful and influential figures in the Trump administration: Attorney General Sessions, senior policy adviser Miller and White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon.

The article raised several issues, including the blurred line between actual charities and the current IRS definition of not-for-profit organizations entitled to tax exempt status. That issue is important; taxpayers are subsidizing nonprofit “educational” activities that are more accurately described as promoting political propaganda.

That said, absent a wholesale revision of the tax code and a considerable reduction in the categories we deem eligible for tax-exempt status, this will not be an easy problem to fix. My version of propaganda is likely to be very different from, say, Mike Pence’s.

What was particularly interesting to me was the description of Horowitz, and his trajectory from far left to the even farther right.

Horowitz was a “red diaper baby” of communist parents in New York City. After attending Columbia University in the 1950s, he enrolled as a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, an anchor of leftist thinking.

Over the next two decades, he took on prominent roles in the New Left. He served as an editor of Ramparts, an influential muckraking magazine in San Francisco.

But by the late 1970s, he had decided that the left represented a profound threat to the United States. On March 17, 1985, he and a writing partner came out as conservatives in a surprising Washington Post Magazine article headlined “Lefties for Reagan.”

In August 1988, Horowitz launched the Center for the Study of Popular Culture in Los Angeles, a nonprofit group that would become the Freedom Center.

We all know literary and political figures who have made the journey from Left to Right, or Right to Left. Horowitz reminds me of a relative of mine who was a pontificating “Young Socialist” in college, to the great consternation of his much more conservative family; when I ran into him many years later, he was an equally rabid and doctrinaire right-winger.

I have come to realize that most of these “conversions” have very little to do with the content of the political philosophies involved. These are not people who have mellowed with age and softened formerly rigid worldviews. For whatever reason, they have “swapped” Certainty A for Certainty B. We live in a complicated world, where “right” and “wrong” are often ambiguous, and bright lines are hard to come by. For many people, that moral ambiguity is intolerable. They need certainty. They need to be able to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys.

And they desperately need to believe that they are with the “good guys.”

We see much of the same phenomenon in our churches, synagogues and mosques: there are members who value their congregations for the warmth of community, who listen to sermons for illumination into life’s “big questions” and for the insights and guidance offered by their particular doctrines. There are other members who see those doctrines as literal commands from On High, as blackletter law removed from any historical context or nuanced interpretation.

Some people have a psychological need to hold tight to dogma–whether Left or Right, political or religious–in order to function. They need a world that is reliably black and white, where  rules are clear and unambiguous, and where good guys and bad guys are easily identified.

The messy uncertainties and complexities of modern life are challenging to all of us. Accepting a doctrine that purports to explain what is otherwise confusing and threatening–a doctrine that identifies friends and enemies– is a huge temptation.

It’s a temptation we need to resist.


  1. You address the saddest aspect of human thought, Dr. Kennedy. Many of us grow up learning to think that way, so when ‘gray’ comes into play, the confusion can be astounding.
    Some of us never learn to get past it. Some us do, but in the process, we become tolerant of nearly all shades of thought, and sadly, that enables the b & w crowd to be really dangerous.

  2. I read the WP article yesterday. What is really upsetting is that these so-called 501(c)(3) organizations are allowed to completely ignore the IRS rules/laws. The article mentioned that enforcement has always been lax, but has become even more so as the division that exists to enforce these laws has been reduced to such a small number of employees that it cannot realistically do its job. The article also mentioned that after the Tea Party uproar in 2013 (that accused the IRS of targeting their organizations) the enforcement has been downgraded even further.

  3. The liberal’s tolerance of all shades of thought opened the door to “fake news”. With that development came an inability to call a lie a lie. I find the behavior of the White House Press Corps mind-boggling when Sean Spicer stands up there and lies and lies and no one in that room calls him on it or better yet, just walks out.

  4. What wasn’t surprising about the article is that, now that Horowitz and other conservatives have taken over the government using their “foundations”, Horowitz is beginning to think that such foundations may not be such a good idea. They don’t want any lefties getting ideas about how to succeed in taking over.

  5. Most of the people you describe, who are dependent on dogma and straightforward black and white rules, are loaded with values, and enjoy the task of cladding those values with pig-iron. They think a set of values is all that is needed to make life’s decisions.
    They have a problem, though. One in which they are badly equipped to handle. Their problem is that though they have a strong set of values, they do not have a sense of proportion. It is the sense of proportion that comes to the rescue when an individual runs into a situation, say, like the right to life. In the abortion issue, individuals run into at least two opposing values: right to life and a woman’s right to choose, plus a half-dozen more. A sense of proportion would help them navigate that double-bind.
    Government policy decisions face numerous decisions that while agreeing nicely with one Article of the Constitution violate another Article. Government, too, needs a sense of proportion.
    Psychotic episodes of individuals are often traced back to a double-bind situation in which the patient feels trapped. Our national situation today may be that we have been caught in a number of double-binds for so long that we have developed the condition of national psychosis.

  6. The blatant abuse of the 501(c)(3) tax provisions, exempting such charitable or educational “non-profit” organizations from taxation, should be a major scandal. 501(c)(3) organizations are specifically prohibited from conducting political campaign activities to intervene in elections to public office.

    The right-wingers and Tea Partiers were aghast that some government bureaucrat might actually check to see if their groups, who were plainly and blatantly engaging in political activities and trying to influence elections, really qualified for the exemption under the rule’s provisions and intent or were engaging in prohibited political activities. But all that has resulted in is the IRS division responsible for compliance with 501(c)(3) organizations being decimated, and IRS personnel basically approving all applications.

  7. Well money makes the world go around is the old saying. I wonder how many of these Lefties turned Righties made the switch because the wealthy Right Wing set up their “Think Tanks” which gave some people a nice job, writing articles about the joys of steroid capitalism.

    Hoover Institution would be a good example. Names like Milton Friedman, Condoleezza Rice, Henry Kissinger, James Mattis, former commander, U.S. Central Command and current Secretary of Defense, H.R. McMaster, currently the U.S. National Security Advisor, the Hoover Institution is funded from two main sources. It receives nearly half of its funding from private gifts, primarily from individual contributions, and the other half from its endowment.

    Funders of the organization include the Taube Family Foundation, the Koret Foundation, the Howard Charitable Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the Walton Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the William E. Simon Foundation.

    We also have the Hudson Institute, from Wiki – Actively recruited by the City of Indianapolis and the Lilly Endowment, Hudson relocated its headquarters to Indiana in 1984. In 1987, Mitch Daniels, a former aide to Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) and President Ronald Reagan, was appointed CEO of Hudson Institute. In 1990, Daniels left Hudson Institute to become Vice President of Corporate Affairs at Eli Lilly and Company. In 2001, President George W. Bush’s initiative on charitable choice was based on Hudson’s research into social-service programs administered by faith-based organizations.

    The Purdue University Board of Trustees unanimously elected Mitch Daniels president of Purdue University on June 21, 2012. As governor, Daniels had appointed 8 of the 10 Board members and had reappointed the other two, which critics claimed was a conflict of interest.

  8. Larry – Couldn’t have said it better myself – You are right on. I have been acquainted with the use of 501 contributions to fund political initiatives for years – especially by the Kochs. These deductions from income mean that you and I are involuntarily involved in financing ultra-right libertarian candidates posing as Republicans because we have to pay what the Kochs and others do not, or alternatively, become liable for the enhanced debt their deductions help cause (while having to put up with their propaganda about how we should reduce the deficit which in turn is a cover for austerity economics), and which, all told, rates a GRRRR! in terms of policy choices. We do indeed need to reform both bankruptcy and tax laws but we also need to enforce the existing 501 statute and would but for fear of agency de-funding by a Republican Congress intent on protecting their sources of funding. Make that GRRRR #2!

  9. Properly educated people who are capable of critical thinking are usually able to separate the wheat from the chaff. Regardless of whether they lean right or left, they should recognize bullshit when they hear it. Our free press needs to be more demanding of factual support for the claims of any public official, and be prepared to walk out of a news conference that is propaganda. I think the current administration has played the press for far too long and they should go silent for a while and deprive Mad King Donald of camera time

  10. Im always looking for a place, a piece of journalism,a way to,convay in context this problem with many others. Thanks for the work here, Im on the road talking to a class of workers I deal with daily. I am however very much abreast of the way this present goverment has decome a paria in modern day. Runs more like a mob, but considering your piece here, its in a paid for and studied and dispatched in real life,with suits who proclaim a free and independant country,and freedom for all. Sick, im looking at collusion beyond any known past and present, to actully distroy the frame work of democracy, and become the unted states of america inc… in a way that distroys every thread that binds us as a nation,into nothing but a place for economic slavery,and damn be you if your in the poverty class. Is this a movement by the republicans and the like,to collude to distroy our goverment? is treason in the air. the recent white house rants and corruption of the laws,and ethics,be damn here. I find this no diffrent than a coup in the making,voted by the american people who, obviously feel our country and its democracy is a mere toy. im speaking to average blue collar people everyday, and its all ideology over knowlege,and faith in our goverment. We have obviously been led down a propaganda made war,against ourselves. I read a bit of what the likes of the right wing blogs and pacs,think tanks,and the stinkin news of fox,and the like,they actully support the demise or distroying of our democracy, and the working class for gain in the markets. its disgusting, and has a black and white look, to what it really amounts to, economic slavery for the working class. I suppose these organizations will gather more money,strenth and political clout before the next election,im expecting a free for all, when in fact, the voter,is, the target…. obviously we all have been sleeping at the wheel. first off, ditch the corprate wear, the logos,trademarks,fashion icons that says im for corprate america… and please,help that neighbor get a i.d. to vote, that voter suppression fight is just time,that could be spent helping another voter,and,mentor someone who hasnt a clue, and remember to say thanks.

  11. A former pastor at our church gave a sermon on this subject decades ago. He described fundamentalism in various world religions as a view of faith which provided black and white answers to all life’s situation. Shades of gray were dismissed as ‘relativism’ and to be avoided.

    But our pastor reminded that God created us as superior to animals in our ability to DISCERN right from wrong. In our own Christian faith, he reminded that Jesus constantly challenged doctrinal dogmas and the certainty of long established rules. Where others rejected sinners and those of other faiths or no faith, Jesus embraced them. He forgave as others judged. He overthrew the stations of ‘moneychangers’ who made money on faith traditions and instead ministered to the powerless, the sick and disabled, the outcasts, and the poor. (Donald Trump – are you listening?)

    Our pastor encouraged us to embrace our doubts; to really think about what Jesus would do and what we would want others to do to us if situations were reversed; and to search both our minds and hearts for non-judgemental answers amid the many shades of gray. As you can tell, I’ve never forgotten that sermon.

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