Lying As Free Speech

I really have to stop reading the news. It’s bad for my mental health.

Just recently, I’ve learned that Wisconsin’s Republican legislature plans to reverse April’s election of a state Supreme Court Judge–who won by eleven points–by impeaching her. (Grounds to be concocted later…)

DeSantis appointed the co-founder of Moms for Liberty to the state’s ethics commission.

Elon Musk threatened to sue the Anti-Defamation League for reporting on the steep rise of anti-Semitic content on “X.” Musk claims that it is the ADL’s reports, not his wack-a-doodle management of the platform formerly known as Twitter, that is responsible for the steep drop in companies willing to advertise on the site.

And I see that Florida–which has been waging war against “woke” (i.e. accurate) education–is being joined by Oklahoma in authorizing the use of PragerU propaganda in public school classrooms.

The Guardian recently provided an in-depth look at PragerU.

A rightwing media outlet promoting climate-crisis denialism and other “anti-woke” staples to young students and adults via social media has become a fundraising Goliath, raking in close to $200m from 2018 to 2022 with big checks from top conservative donors, tax records reveal.

Founded in 2009 by the conservative talkshow host Dennis Prager, the eponymous Prager University Foundation is not an accredited education organization. But via online media its PragerU Kids division has become a key tool in spreading false claims to young people with short videos aimed at undercutting widely accepted science that climate crisis disasters are accelerating due, largely, to fossil-fuel usage.

PragerU’s influence in pushing false narratives about climate change and other far-right shibboleths such as airbrushing the brutal reality of American slavery gained ground when the Florida board of education in July gave the green light to using its videos and other materials in classrooms, a move that PragerU is trying to capitalize on in Texas and other states. On Tuesday, Oklahoma’s school system also approved the use of PragerU’s materials.

On its website, PragerU claims to be the “world’s leading conservative non-profit, focused on changing minds through the creative use of digital media.”

In other words, through lying. They call it “edutainment.”

The site’s funders include the Right-wing’s “usual suspects”–  oil and gas billionaire brothers Farris and Dan Wilks ($8m over the past decade), the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the National Christian Charitable Foundation and (predictably) the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation

PragerU cartoons and videos include one about Christopher Columbus and the discovery of America, which has Columbus explaining that slavery isn’t so bad.

“Slavery is as old as time, and has taken place in every corner of the world, even amongst the people I just left. Being taken as a slave is better than being killed,” the cartoon Columbus said. “I don’t see the problem.”

Other PragerU videos about the climate crisis make various false claims: they depict solar and wind power as environmentally dangerous, liken environmental activists to Nazis and claim recent record-breaking heat is just part of the natural weather cycle.

What truly drives me up the wall is the emerging “conservative” argument that the First Amendment protects such unconscionable lying.

In an extraordinary display of chutzpah, Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, and fellow Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee have accused Democrats of violating the First Amendment rights of election deniers.

In a report titled “The Weaponization of CISA: How a ‘Cybersecurity’ Agency Colluded With Big Tech and ‘Disinformation’ Partners to Censor Americans,” they argue that

the First Amendment recognizes that no person or entity has a monopoly on the truth, and that the “truth” of today can quickly become the “misinformation” of tomorrow. Labeling speech “misinformation” or “disinformation” does not strip it of its First Amendment protection. As such, under the Constitution, the federal government is strictly prohibited from censoring Americans’ political speech.

These people have no shame….

These civil libertarian claims of unconstitutional suppression of speech come from the same Republican Party that is leading the charge to censor the teaching of what it calls divisive concepts about race, the same party that expelled two Democratic members of the Tennessee state legislature who loudly called for more gun control after a school shooting, the same party that threatens to impeach a liberal judge in North Carolina for speaking out about racial bias, the same party that has aided and abetted book banning in red states across the country.

The linked column focuses upon the GOP’s hypocrisy, but that hypocrisy’s effectiveness relies on Americans’ widespread ignorance about the operation of the First Amendment.

Free Speech doesn’t allow you to engage in defamation or commit fraud with impunity; it doesn’t allow  science teachers to substitute creationism for evolution.

It does, however, protect the ADL from Musk’s anti-Semitic  threats….


Who’s Indoctrinating?

There’s a psychological mechanism called “projection,” — it’s when people accuse others of faults they themselves harbor. Several commenters to this blog have noted that the GOP routinely engages in projection. 

Ron DeSantis’ Florida just shot down any lingering doubts about the accuracy of that observation.

Over the past few years, Republican culture warriors have  become positively hysterical over the “indoctrination” of students by public schools and universities. To some extent, they’re right–after all, education imparts facts and–at best– enables critical thinking. A very expansive definition of “indoctrination” might stretch to include the broadening of a student’s frame of reference.

On the other hand, I have previously argued–and firmly believe– that what really upsets Republicans is the lack of indoctrination–the failure of educators to convey their preferred, albeit distorted, versions of history and science.

Florida has just proved my point:

Videos that compare climate activists to Nazis, portray solar and wind energy as environmentally ruinous and claim that current global heating is part of natural long-term cycles will be made available to young schoolchildren in Florida, after the state approved their use in its public school curriculum.

Slickly-made animations by the Prager University Foundation, a conservative group that produces materials on science, history, gender and other topics widely criticized as distorting the truth, will be allowed to be shown to children in kindergarten to fifth grade after being adopted by Florida’s department of education.

Actual scientists who have reviewed these and other videos produced by PragerU have characterized them as worse than inaccurate, describing them as a form of rightwing indoctrination bearing little resemblance to reality.

“These videos target very young and impressionable kids with messages of support for fossil fuels and doubts over renewable energy resources – they are trying to grow the next generation of supporters for fossil fuels,” said Adrienne McCarthy, a researcher at Kansas State University who has studied the activities of PragerU.

“It’s propaganda 101. Equating people concerned about the climate change with Nazis can have long-term impacts on young, impressionable people. The beliefs PragerU are pushing forward overlap with far-right extremist beliefs. The fear is that they will bring this sort of extremist beliefs into mainstream society.”

Prager is not a “U,” nor is it any type of academic institution. It is one of the country’s proliferating  number of rightwing advocacy groups. It produces magazines and videos about slavery that have been roundly criticized by historians, in addition to the videos emphasizing climate denial. It was originally generously funded by Dan and Farris Wilks, brothers who are petroleum industry businessmen.

One video shows two children being told by their “scientist uncle,” that “Wind and solar just aren’t powerful enough to power the modern world, the energy from them isn’t dense or robust enough,”  He also tells them sadly that “windmills kill so many birds.”  A climate scientist at the University of Pennsylvania said the decision by DeSantis’ administration to allow the videos “would make Goebbels himself blush”.

An essay in the Guardian ties the videos to the GOP’s goals:

PragerU’s latest annual report says that the company’s self-described “edutainment” videos racked up more than 1.2bn views in 2022, with more than 7bn since its founding. Its content has been mostly available online, particularly on Facebook and YouTube, but now it is making its way into US classrooms with the promise of fighting the so-called “woke agenda”.

 PragerU makes no secret of its own agenda. Its co-founder, Dennis Prager – a conservative radio talkshow host and writer who has been attacking progressive causes since the 1980s – was recently glib in responding to claims that PragerU “indoctrinates kids”. “Which is true,” Prager said in a speech to the conservative “parental rights” group Moms for Liberty. “We bring doctrines to children. That is a very fair statement. I said, ‘But what is the bad of our indoctrination?’”

PragerU Kids’ cartoon videos for children as young as kindergarten age not only soft-pedal the history of slavery, racism, colonialism and police brutality – they show sympathy for them. In one video, Leo and Layla Meet Christopher Columbus, Columbus tells young Leo and Layla: “Slavery is as old as time and has taken place in every corner of the world … Being taken as a slave is better than being killed, no?”

The effort isn’t limited to climate change and racism. In “How to Embrace Your Femininity,” a young blond woman with what is described as perfect hair and makeup explains that “gender stereotypes exist because they reflect the way that men and women are naturally different.” 

 People who want to revisit the 1950s will feel very comfortable in Florida–at least, until the hot rising waters get them….