Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Anger and Outrage--America's Fastest Growing Religion

Last week I had an epiphany.

I have been operating under the mistaken belief that those who continually forward emails full of vicious lies and distortions smearing President Obama, his family, and others with whom they politically disagree were simply mistaken. I was sure that if I could send them conclusive proof that they were forwarding deliberately manufactured lies--not honest mistakes--then they would be grateful and thank me.

But they never did. In fact, they almost always got angry and berated me for being a liberal--which I guess is a term they use to describe people who care about the truth. They never said "Thank you so much! I can't believe I just sent a horrible lie about our president to a whole bunch of my friends. I will have to get back in touch with all of them right away and make sure they know it's not true!"

Then my friend Doug, a highly respected attorney, helped me see the light. I had just responded to a number of people who had sent me an email claiming that President Obama had sent $17 million dollars in stimulus money to officials at Oregon State University to help save the job of Michelle's brother, Craig Robinson, who was supposedly about to be fired as the school's basketball coach.

Now to any reasonable person (particulary a sports fan familiar with the Pac 10), this piece was obviously phony. In the first place, Robinson is the best coach Oregon State has had in over a decade and has turned their basketball program around. OSU fans were scared that he would leave for a bigger school and were thrilled when he signed a contract extension through 2016 last March. As Snopes, Urban Legends, and other truth sites have pointed out, every sentence in the email is false. And, as with all these creations, it is a professionally manufactured lie--not the result of an average person making an honest mistake.

So I wrote back to the friends who forwarded me this piece (under a headline encouraging me to be outraged) along with proof that it wasn't true. But this time I asked Doug "now that you know it's a lie, what are you going to do?" His response made it clear to me just how misguided I have been--and a whole lot more.

"I'm going to keep sending it out," he said. "After all, Obama lies all the time so we have the right to lie too."

Then it hit me. We are not dealing with rational discourse about politics, economics, and what is best for America any more. We are dealing with a religious cult of tens of millions of people who are addicted to anger, outrage, and hatred and the media outlets that feed that addiction.  Issues that most of us consider to be questions of truth and reason have now become questions of religious faith.

These are Americans who now believe with perfect faith the our black president, dark-skinned Muslim terrorists and Mexican immigrants, and liberal Democrats are the cause of every problem we face in America today. These self-described patriots don't just disagree with their adversaries--they actually think the bad guys are pure evil and out to deliberately destroy everything that is great about America. 

These cult patriots are true believers in the same way that Orthodox Jews believe that the entire Hebrew Bible was given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai--in the same way that devout Christians believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God. It is not a matter that lends itself to intellectual discussion.  It is not about reason or facts--it is a matter of faith.

Rational discourse and fact checks that prove that what is being said is untrue have become irrelevant to people for whom this was never about truth and accuracy. Glenn Beck has become the high priest of Fox News and of the new religion and his language and demeanor have become increasingly evangelical as this trend has continued.

The business network CNBC has jumped on board as well. The late-morning business program "The Call" now includes a regular segment entitled "Viewer Outrage." Think about that. They are now committed to a televised segment of outrage on a daily basis in the way The 700 Club might commit itself to airing daily prayer or bible passage.

But all this anger and outrage and thinly veiled racism and bigotry and lies are only the symptoms. The disease is the widespread and growing sense of fear that is gripping millions of Americans who just a few years ago felt smart and confident about their circumstances and future but who today are more frightened and confused than they have ever been in their lives.

For an entire generation, most people got used to secure employment, a growing economy, rising home, stock, and real estate prices. There were ups and downs along the way but we were all told that if we worked hard, owned quality investments, and hung in for the long term that things would work out fine. And for 25 years they did.

If a person put away a nest egg, they could count on at least 5 percent a year from risk-free investments and an average of 10-15 percent a year in riskier investments. Most of my clients who retired during that period (I work as a financial advisor when I'm not busy saving the world) would  go on to buy the nicest house they ever owned, live better than they did when they were working, and see their net worth go up year after year due to the rising value of their investments. This was the case despite the stock market crash in 1987, the savings and loan crisis of the early '90s, the popping of the tech bubble, and even 9/11. We always came back stronger than we were before.

But all that has changed for the worse during the last five years. Million of Americans have lost 100 percent (or more) of the equity in their homes. Most growth-oriented investments such as stocks and real estate have been losers instead of winners. More importantly, most investors have lost confidence in the future pulling more than $33 billion out of stock mutual funds already this year and moving that money into bonds and CDs that are yielding virtually nothing.

Ten years ago there was full employment and companies such as mine were offering a $1,000 bonus to any employee who helped find a new worker because the labor market was that tight. Today, we have tens of millions of Americans out of work and most companies are looking to make even more cuts even as business has improved dramatically.

In its effort to stimulate the economy by dropping interest rates to zero, the Federal Reserve has actually hurt most investors by making it impossible to get any income at all from bank deposits and money market funds. A person with a million dollars in the bank used to be able to get $50,000 or more a year in income. Now they are lucky to get $1,000.

People who thought they had a grip on their lives are now scared and looking for someone to blame. They used to look forward to leaving something to their children and grandchildren. Today our kids are inheriting a reverse annuity--a mountain of debt they can never outlive. The Patriots blame estate taxes and Obama's anti-wealth policies, but deep down they know the truth. We just didn't have the guts to act like grown-ups. We paid our bills with credit cards and when we were maxed out, we put them on our kids' tab.

We have two basic choices. We can look in the mirror and realize that the challenges we now face are due in large part to choices we made as voters and citizens. We elected and supported government leaders who spent too much and taxed us too little. We wanted to keep our Medicare and drug benefits and Social Security and to expand homeland security and fight two wars but we didn't want to pay for it. We re-elected a president and Congress who told us we could have it all and make no sacrifices. Those same officials allowed our financial institutions and oil drillers and miners and others to take huge risks in search of profits and personal gain without regard to the consequences to all of us when those gambles crapped out.

And it's not all about money.  There are a whole lot of older people who confused brains with a bull market.  They made millions of dollars between 1980 and 2000 mainly because they were alive and in business or the stock market or real estate at the right time.  They worked hard and some were quite intelligent but because they lived during a time when the stock market went from 1,000 to 14,000 and real estate went through the roof they got rich beyond their wildest dreams.

Human nature being what it is, most of them came away feeling really smart instead of really lucky.  Now that things aren't working out so well, instead of feeling really stupid (which is no fun at all) they are just getting angry and blaming all of their challenges and things they just don't understand on the villains cited above.  The truth, of course, is that they were never that smart in the first place and now they are not that stupid but rather than unpack all that, they are forwarding slanderous emails and listening to the media high priests of fear and hatred who are preaching exactly the exact sermon they want to hear.

Instead of looking at how they need to change their own behavior and expectations, these cult Patriots have chosen to blame others and get very angry. They have chosen to blame a president who wasn't even around when everything had already come unglued. They have chosen to blame every member of Congress, even though WE were the ones who elected them. They have chosen to blame a variety of dark-skinned people starting with our Black president but not ending there. We also blame dark-skinned immigrants who, like most of our parents and grandparents came to America seeking a better life and who make a huge contribution to our economy and society.

And now, nine years after 9/11 during which Presidents Bush and Obama have repeatedly insisted the U.S. is at war with terrorists--not Islam,  Fox News and opportunistic politicans are choosing to revive a new wave of bigotry and resentment against the millions of law-abiding, tax-paying Muslim Americans (thousands of whom serve in our military and dozens of whom were killed in the 9/11 attacks) under the guise of showing respect for the Real American victims at the World Trade Center.

The anger and hatred and lies being spread about Muslims and the leaders of the cultural center are yet another embarrassment to our country. The notion that an abandoned Burlington Coat Factory three blocks from Ground Zero is "hallowed ground" while there are already two strips clubs operating even closer to the site without any concern is yet another indication of how our sense of nation fear and confusion has eliminated any pretense of honesty or fairness in how we think or what we today come to call "news.

My friend, teacher and Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of CLAL has taught that anger and fear can be very useful as an alarm system--the flashing red lights and clanging bells that alert us that we are facing a serious challenge. But he goes on to point out that people should not make important decisions while they are angry or afraid, wisely pointing out that those actions never seem to work out well and are often disastrous.

Before a disease can be cured, it has to be accurately diagnosed. As long as a growing group of people continues to believe that our national sickness is all about dark-skinned people who are not like us and evil politicians, our problems will only get worse. This first step toward a cure has to be a return of honesty and rational, fact-based conversation regarding where we are and how to proceed.

And the first step toward that first step must be a rejection of news media and politicians who are the false prophets and leaders of this new fast-growing cult. And finding the "delete" button on our computers when we receive an email that blares in its headline that we should be angry and outraged and claims to have identified the villains who got us into this mess.

It's going to be long and hard but, as Will Rogers once said, when you find yourself in a hole and need to get out, the first thing to do is stop digging. Because they are angry and afraid, too many Americans have used anger, outrage, and demonization as a shovel and as a result they are sinking deeper and deeper into the pit.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Ground Zero Muslim Center--How Low Can We Go?

During the last few years Americans have seen facts and truth play a smaller and smaller role in political discourse.  At the same time, lies, distortions, nastiness and demonization have replaced civility and respect in our public conversation.  Racism and bigotry, always present in subtle ways in the past have become more thinly veiled as these trends have taken a firmer hold and anger and outrage have gained new traction and acceptance as part of political and media dialogue.

All of these toxic trends have come together during the last month and have been reflected in the media coverage, political opportunism, and email conversation about the new Muslim Center that is being built blocks away from Ground Zero.

Ironically, least affected by all of this hysteria was the government process of the City of New York.  The center is being built on private property on a non-descript piece of land and in conformance with all relevant zoning and use guidelines.  Approval of the center breezed through the required process with the support of Mayor Bloomberg and unanimous votes by the relevant committees.  For years there have been discussions and proposal for development of Ground Zero itself that aroused virtually no national interest.

As has been the case with all proposals on and near ground zero, the developers are long-time American citizens with no legal or tax issues who have a long history of working for pluralism and greater understanding among people.  The difference with this project of course is that the developers are Muslim.

That is not supposed to matter in America.  We are a country with a long and proud legal and moral tradition of people being innocent until proven guilty.  For decades it has be considered both immoral and illegal to discriminate against anyone based on race, religion, color, or ethnicity.  Unfortunately, those days seem to be long gone--the victim of the addiction to anger and outrage and the need for dark-skinned villains that has overtaken our national conversation.

As has become normal in matters of manufactured outrage and controversy, the symbiotic partnership between Fox News and the Republican Right got the ball rolling.  But the trend toward more thinly veiled bigotry and demonization of people of color and "the other" continued its acceleration.

As you may have noticed, according to Fox and the Right, the only real racists in our country are now people of color.  President Obama, Van Jones, Sonia Sotomayor, and Shirley Sherrod.  There are apparently no white racists any more.  And every economic, law enforcement, and national character problem Americans face can be directly linked to our socialist Black president, dark-skinned Mexican immigrants, and Muslims (every one of whom is assumed to be a terrorist or embrace a religion that's focused on death and destruction).  Not a single one of our national ills can be traced to the behavior of the rest of us.  The job of Real Patriots and Real Americans (white people) is to be increasingly outraged and point out how "we" are the victims of "them."

The tactics surrounding the debate over the Cordoba Muslim Center issue have taken this national embarrassment to a whole new level.  As Mayor Bloomberg, President Obama, and many others have pointed out, there is no way any law-abiding American can oppose the right of American citizens to build a Muslim Center on private land unless they believe that all Muslims share responsibility for 9/11 and that all members of a religion are guilty of the crimes that were committed by a very small group of their co-religionists.  As Michael Kinsley has convincingly explained, this thinking is flawed, illegal and un-American on every level.

The most ironic aspect of the debate has been that opponents have claimed that allowing the center to be built would grant a victory to the terrorists.  As Jeffrey Goldberg and others have accurately pointed out, nothing could be further from the truth.  A Muslim Center run by an Imam who has written a book entitled "The American Dream is the Muslim Dream" and who has worked for decades to promote cooperation and understanding will become the number one target of Muslim terrorists because he is the ultimate affront to their core belief that infidels should be destroyed--not embraced.

The fact that presidential hopeful and Fox analyst Newt Gingrich has compared building a Muslim Center led by American citizens committed to peace and interfaith cooperation to putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum is disappointing (Jeff Goldberg called Gingrich "an ally of Al Qaeda") but not a surprise.  The fact that Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity have spread vicious lies about Imam Rauf and implied that most families of victims of 9/11 are opposed to the center (they aren't--many are strong supporters) is also not a surprise.  That's how Fox and the right roll.

But as a Jew who is deeply involved with and committed to a number of community organizations, the biggest shock has been the extent to which so many Jewish leaders and organizations have gone to the dark side on this issue.  Jews have suffered for centuries from bigoted group-think and the spread of slanderous lies which has led to shameful discrimination.  And no group has fought more energetically and effectively to combat bigotry, relgious discrimination, and to uphold the rights of all Americans.

That's why it was such a shock when the Anti Defamation League came out in opposition to the Muslim Center.  More than any other Jewish organization, the ADL and its long time director Abraham Foxman have been true to their stated mission of protecting and defending the rights of all groups who were victims of religious discrimination.  As a result of its shocking flip when it comes to Muslims, the ADL has earned the criticism of respected Jewish writers, organizations, and rabbis and had distinguished journalist Fareed Zakaria announce on CNN that he has returned the award and $10,000 honorarium he received from the ADL five years ago to honor his commitment to the First Amendment and his outstanding reporting.

In response, Foxman issued a release expressing no regret for his position and saying basically that he hopes Zakaria comes to his senses and changes his mind. 

Even though the Muslim Center has received approval and will be built, I continue to receive a flood of emails from fellow Jews trying to help me understand through cherry-picked quotes from the Koran and provocative 4 minute videos that Islam is a religion of death and suggesting that "they" need to express remorse for the attack on 9/11 nine years ago before "they" should be allowed to build a mosque in New York--or, as Newt Gingrich has suggested and the New York Times has reported--anywhere else in the U.S.

These suggestions are contrary to American law and tradition on their face, but they are particularly shocking coming from a group that until recently suffered so broadly from the same kind of broad brush discrimination.  I ask my fellow Jewish friends how they would respond to a suggestion that since it is common knowledge that Jews are greedy and will do anything to make money legally or otherwise at the expense of others, that rabbis and Jewish leaders should publicly apologize on behalf of all Jews for the actions of financial terrorists Bernie Madoff and Orthodox Jews like former Enron CFO Andy Fastow and Jack Abramoff who swindled and bankrupted thousands of innocent people.

The idea is appropriately greeted as offensive, slanderous and un-American on its face.  But for some reason, those who demonize all Muslims don't realize that they are holding millions of peaceful, law-abiding, tax paying, American citizens to a similar warped standard.  The angry critics also never point out that dozens of Muslims were victims of the 9/11 attacks--including six members of Imam Rauf's mosque.  Are the families of those victims part of the "they" or are they part of the "real" victims? 

Are the families of the thousands of Muslims who bravely serve in our armed forces part of the "they"? Should all these brave Americans be forced to apologize for horrible acts committed 9 years ago by a couple dozen of their co-religionists or are they exempt from the rest of Muslims who owe us an apology and and explanation?

Are our "allies" in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan who we are spending trillions to defend and support and on whose behalf tens of thousands of Americans have been killed or maimed in recent years part of the "they?"  Lest we forget, they are all Muslims.

The roles of truth and civility have been shrinking and the role of outrage, lies, and demonization have been skyrocketing in our public conversation and news media in recent years.  And as
 it has become more obvious and apparent the problem is getting worse--not better.

By any reasonable standard, there never was a real controversy over whether the Cordoba Muslim Center should have been approved and now that American justice and values have prevailed there is really nothing more to discuss.  But we all know that this is not about a Muslim Center.  It is about political opportunism, the desire for media profits, and our growing dysfunctional need for anger, outrage and villains.  After all, without villains we might have to look in the mirror and realize that is was us and the representives we elected who have created the multiple crises we now face.  But that's worth a whole article of its own.

That's also why for some time to come, there will be a great deal of heat and very little light created around this and other issues.  We have reached a new low in the quality and civility of our national conversation.  But there can be no doubt that we haven't yet hit the bottom.  This is looking and feeling more and more like a Black Hole where there is no limit to how far we can sink.