Tag Archives: Tom Nichols

What Can We Do About Fox?

I subscribe to a newsletter from Tom Nichols, a non-crazy conservative who writes for the Atlantic, among other outlets. Nichols recently addressed a problem that pretty much everyone who isn’t crazy recognizes: Fox “News.”

Nichols taught at the Naval War College for 25 years; he worked closely with many American military officers, and he has become increasingly worried about the danger of extremism in the ranks–a situation made worse, in his view, by the fact that Fox is the “default channel in so many military installations.

The overlap between Fox and even more-extreme outlets such as Newsmax and One America News Network, a slew of right-wing internet sites, and talk radio is part of a closed information ecosystem that affects the military no less than it does American society at large. Many years ago, I defended the emergence of Fox as an antidote to the politically homogeneous center-left tilt of the established American media. (Please spare me too much caviling here about media bias back in the Good Old Days; it was less of a menace than conservatives depicted it, but more of a reality than liberals were sometimes willing to admit.)

But things change: Fox is no longer an additional source of news and opinion. It is, instead, a steady stream of conspiracy theories and rage-bait, especially in prime time.

As Nichols explains, there is a significant and important difference between different views held by people who have reached opposing conclusions about various issues and people whose opinions aren’t derived from anything that might remotely be considered evidence or fact.

I am increasingly concerned, however, that what comes from Fox and similar outlets these days is not a “view” so much as an attack on reality itself. As Russian dissident Garry Kasparov has noted, modern propaganda isn’t designed “only to misinform or push an agenda”; it is meant to “exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth,” a good description of how Fox and similar outlets now present their programming… …To watch Fox for an extended amount of time is to go on an excursion into an alternate reality of paranoia and fury, to plunge into a hurricane of anger that shapes views by defying logic and evidence.

I agree. So–I repeat the question with which I’ve been approaching most of the issues of our day: what can/should we do?

Nichols’ response echoes generations of First Amendment case law: the answer to bad speech is more and better speech. More openness, not censorship. Nichols insists that the  answer to an authoritarian challenge cannot be more authoritarianism. (He also dismisses the predictable calls to bring back the Fairness Doctrine–calls from people who clearly don’t understand what that doctrine did and didn’t do. The Fairness Doctrine was a  1949 rule, finally discarded in 1987, that applied ONLY to broadcast channels owned by the government. Ownership allowed government to attach conditions to the lease of those airwaves–attempting to apply it to cable or other privately owned means of communication would violate the First Amendment.)

I used to share with students something I called my “refrigerator theory of Free Speech”–like the forgotten leftover in the back of your refrigerator now covered in green fuzz, suppressed ideas will eventually smell the place up. Put those same leftovers in bright sunlight, and their stench is baked out.  The marketplace of ideas can’t function properly unless there’s verbal sunlight, and freedom of speech requires that We the People participate in that marketplace and produce that sunlight–in this case, more and better speech.

As Nichols says,

No matter how much you don’t like it, you cannot ban, censor, or silence Fox. It’s that simple. You can choose not to watch it and encourage others to do likewise—which can have more impact than you might think. Another possibility is for businesses and institutions to choose neutral programming in common areas such as sports or weather, as military exchanges (stores for military personnel) did in 2019.

He is absolutely right–and that’s what’s so incredibly frustrating. Bottom line, rescuing our democracy necessarily depends upon the efforts of millions of reasonable Americans to combat the hatreds, fears and racial grievances that motivate the members of today’s GOP cult and provide the content of its propaganda arms.

Ultimately, America’s survival as a democratic republic will come down to whether good people–including genuine conservatives–outnumber, outvote and occasionally out-yell the White Nationalists, theocrats and other angry, frightened people who are the target audience of outlets like Fox “News.”

There’s no guarantee those good people will prevail…..and that’s what is so terrifying….

 

I Love Tom Nichols…..

I recently signed up for Peacefield, a newsletter by Atlantic writer Tom Nichols. The name Peacefield is evidently a reference to something that escapes me–but Nichols is my kind of writer: he doesn’t mince words, and he respects language.

And words were the subject of this particular newsletter.

Nichols began by relating his debates with a fellow faculty member during his time as an academic. ( At the time, his colleague was far to the left of him.)

We’d run through a whole lexicon of political insults, but my favorite moment was a day when I exclaimed “Bolshevik!” and he barked “Hun!” and the two of us broke up in a prolonged fit of laughter….

We enjoyed these jousts, in part because we understood the words we were using and knew when we meant them and when we were kidding. We argued over who had the better policies, and over whose view of human nature and the right order of society should prevail. But I didn’t think he was a Communist and he didn’t think I was a Nazi.

Now we use these terms all day long and no one knows what they mean.

Nichols is frustrated by “how much of our public discourse is short-circuited by people who don’t understand basic terminology.”

I share that frustration. It is impossible to have a genuine, productive debate or discussion with someone who is using words that don’t mean what that person thinks they mean. Human communication is difficult even when the parties to a discussion both use language precisely; it’s impossible when one party simply uses terminology as an insulting–and  inaccurate– label.

In the linked article, Nichols gives “quick and dirty” definitions to terms that are often used indiscriminately–for example, Liberal Democracy.

What it is: A system of government that lets you read cranky articles about politics like the one you’re reading right now.

More specifically, democracies derive a ruling mandate from the free choices of citizens, who are equal before the law and who can freely express their preferences. Liberal democracies enshrine a respect for basic human rights (including the right of old cranks to speak their mind). Rights are, one might say, unalienable: The losers of elections do not have their rights stripped away. All citizens abide by constitutional and legal rules agreed upon in advance of elections and are willing to transfer power back and forth to each other peaceably.

What it isn’t: “The majority always rules.” Getting everything you want every time. Governing without negotiation or compromise. Winning every election. Never living with outcomes that disappoint you. Never running out of toilet paper or cat food.

Democracy, in sum, is not “things you happen to like.”

He goes through an entire political lexicon, defining what various terms mean, and especially what they don’t mean. For example, after  defining “Authoritarianism,” he explains what it isn’t.

Any rules you don’t like. Any laws you don’t like. Any election that you didn’t like. Anything that inconveniences or annoys you. Anything that limits you doing whatever you want, whenever you want, in any way that you want. Paying your taxes, obeying speed limits, or wearing a mask in a store are not “authoritarianism.”

He also offers a snarky explanation of libertarianism, and  particularly good definitions of Capitalism and Socialism. And he reminds us that precision in language matters– that everything you don’t like isn’t necessarily fascism or socialism.

The term I wish more people would think about—and this is why I wrote a book about it—is illiberal democracy, because that’s where we’re headed. This is what happens when everything about liberal democracy—tolerance, trust, secular government, the rule of law, political equality—gets hollowed out and all people remember is the word democracy.

And of course, once you dump all that other stuff, democracy means “absolute rule by 50.01 percent of the voters.”

As Nichols notes, this is what we’re seeing now in places like Turkey and Hungary. All that matters is winning elections.

The danger here is not that Donald Trump or Viktor Orbán or others are fascists. They’re not, and unlikely to be, since they lack the infrastructure, mass party, ideology, and absolute cult of personality that we saw in the 1930s. (Trump is far too stupid to be an effective fascist, but he definitely has a cult of personality. Still, the Trump Cult is small potatoes compared with what Hitler or Stalin or Mussolini built. Trump is more like a Mickey Mouse version of Juan Perón.)

The danger Nichols sees is the very real possibility that the extremists will destroy the guardrails of democracy–those democratic “norms” that seem to be eroding in real time.

And as he reminds us, the first step is debasing the language.

 

Whataboutism

I’ve gotten used to “whataboutism”–most vividly illuminated by Republicans who respond to every criticism of Trump with “But what about Hillary’s emails!” There are lots of other examples: think of the people who respond to incidents of racist violence with “But what about black on black crime?”

What is so infuriating about this particular deflection technique is how intellectually dishonest it is. Whatever one’s position with respect to Hillary’s emails or black on black crime, they are irrelevant to the issue being raised. 

Recently, Bret Stephens wrote a “whataboutism” column for the New York Times decrying liberal intolerance and excoriating left-wingers who “believe all the old patriarchal hierarchies must go (so that new “intersectional” hierarchies may arise), who are in a perpetual fervor to rewrite the past (all the better to control the future), and who demand cringing public apologies from those who have sinned against an ever-more radical ideological standard (while those apologies won’t save them from being fired).”

Stephens is a conservative, so coming across a conservative takedown of the column was particularly satisfying.

Tom Nichols is the author of The Death of Expertise (a book I recommend highly, by the way). Nichols is a conservative professor at the Naval War College, and like Stephens, a Never-Trumper. He took to Twitter to respond to Stephens’ column, and the thread was captured by AlterNet.I’m reproducing it in full, because it’s well worth reading in its entirety.

Yes, I read the Bret Stephens piece. Ho hum. Yes, the intolerant left is a threat. Stipulated. However, I have excoriated people on the left for most of my career. But only opposing Trump produced harassment, demands to fire me, and death threats. Cancel culture, indeed. /1
 
I mean, I have blistered everyone from Obama to Hillary Clinton, and across the seas to Putin and Assad. For years, I was an outspoken conservative. But I never encountered McCarthyist thuggery like the kind I’ve gotten from the Cult of Trump. So spare me the hand-wringing. /2
 
I am not blind to the totalitarian streak on the left. I wrote about it – and at The Federalist, back in the day, no less. Amazingly, no one on the left tried to get me fired for it or told me I’d be hung as a traitor or left endless f-bombs on my voicemail at work. Imagine. /3
 
Look, the Democrats always have short-pants Stalinists in their midst. The GOP has always had theocratic wanna-be ayatollahs in *their* midst. The difference is that the GOP is now in power and owned, completely, by its fringe – one that is frantic with fear and anger. /4
 
The people who want to pull down statues without reading the nameplates (or without reading a book) are idiots. Many are the children of privilege. Some are even stupid enough to think they’re leading a revolution. They’re not. Calm down. /5
 
Leftist revolution here is about as likely as the Civil War 2.0 porn that Trump’s kooks love so much (not least because those same young people would freak out if no-kidding socialism was ever implemented).
Meanwhile, right-wing attacks on the Constitution? Happening now. /6
 
“Oh noes, the college kids are gonna take over the country!” is one of those cyclical things that conservatives worry about – usually as an indication of how little faith conservatives have in their own ideas and how much they fear their own personal weaknesses./7
 
But what about the culture war, right? Here’s an open secret: most GOPers never really cared that much about the culture war. They say they do, and they wave the flag and decry the behavior of poor people and brown people and people in cities, but that’s mostly a show. /8
 
How can I say this? Because you don’t see much of that culture war reflected in the personal behavior of most self-identified conservatives, who are as decadent as anyone else. These are not Amish stoics. They just don’t like *other* people being decadent, too. /9
 
What are they, then? They’re white people, who liked the world (or imagine they did) the way it looked when they were kids, and use the culture war as a proxy for resentment and nostalgia. The behavior of political evangelicals since 2016, especially, finally outed all that. /10
 
You want me to worry about college Marxists? Yeah, I’ll get right on that as soon as we dislodge the febrile anti-constitutionalists of the GOP.
I have plenty of concerns about the left. But right now, I’d like to deal with the obvious and demonstrated threat from the right. /11
 
I’ve been hearing about leftists taking over the country since I was a kid. It was supposed to happen in the 60s, after the 80s, etc etc. And the culture war, such that is, was over decades ago. But I never thought I’d have to fight over the Constitution – with the *right*. /12
 
So take all your fears of rampaging drag queens and how Joe Biden is controlled by the College Spartacists, and put ’em in a sock, pally. I’ll be first in line to oppose extremist left-wing dumbassery – once we defeat far more dangerous people like Barr and McConnell. /12x

You go, Tom!