The Briefing 03-02-17

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President Trump's address to Congress on Tuesday set a different tone from his campaign

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What signal is being sent? Disney to have first 'exclusively gay moment' in 'Beauty and the Beast'

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Anti-Semitism in America: Vandalism and bomb threats against Jewish communities are deeply concerning

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Transcript

The Briefing

March 2, 2017

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Thursday, March 2, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

President Trump's address to Congress on Tuesday set a different tone from his campaign

On Tuesday night the President of the United States addressed a joint session of Congress. Americans are familiar with the scene and are familiar with the pageantry. Indeed, most Americans are probably quite familiar with the traditional news coverage. But all of those traditions were very much on the line when President Donald J. Trump, the 45th President of the United States, addressed that joint session. As a team of writers for the Los Angeles Times reported in their front page story,

“President Trump championed new approaches to healthcare and immigration Tuesday in a disciplined address to a joint session of Congress that may have been his most traditional political speech since he entered public life decades.”

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The team went on to say,

“The outsider who has relished blunt and confrontational stage banter honed from talk radio delivered a speech that took aim at his long-promised goal: to be ‘more presidential than anybody.’”

Siobhan Hughes, reporting for the Wall Street Journal, wrote it this way,

“For a president who has disrupted traditional Washington, Donald Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress was, in many ways, a picture of tradition from the moment when the House of Representatives’ sergeant at arms led a procession into the chamber and announced the president’s arrival.”

She went on to say,

“It was a political stage on which Mr. Trump was the star but with a large cast of supporting players in their customary roles, many of whom the president needs to bring to his side if he is to see his policy priorities become law. Eschewing his fierce campaign rhetoric and not mentioning his usual foil of the media, Mr. Trump began his speech with a call to unity and peppered his remarks with a call for bipartisan action.”

Both of those leads in these articles in two very different newspapers are basically very fair. Both the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal in these two examples indicate that Donald Trump has taken pride in being a political disruptor, but even as he has indeed disrupted so much of the political equation and has set the entire city of Washington D.C. into a state of some kind of disequilibrium, the fact is that a formal speech by the President of the United States before a joint session of Congress is not the context for disruption. And it wasn’t on Tuesday night. It was indeed a very presidential performance on the part of Donald Trump, and that came as a relief no doubt to Americans who were watching, wondering if indeed Donald Trump was going to present himself in a way that Americans would recognize as genuinely presidential.

A couple of issues here are of very deep importance. One of them is tone, the tone set by the President in terms of this kind of a speech. Tone refers here not only to the words, not only to the sentences the President would utter, but also to his general demeanor. The tone that President Trump exhibited was quite presidential in timber. He spoke in measured tones, and also he spoke without rancor. That is not something that requires a president to avoid any kind of divisive political statement, but it is one that calls for the President to address not only both houses of Congress, but members of both parties as very real human beings, and one day or another legislators that he will need in order to accomplish his agenda. That’s particularly true with members of the President’s own party.

The second has to do with the issue of attitude. The President’s attitude was quite optimistic. Now that’s noteworthy because the President has demonstrated a rather pessimistic understanding of the nation, at least in terms of its current moment and its economic state. President Trump was largely elected because the American people were very dissatisfied with the economic picture as it currently stands. Economics was not the only issue, but there was no question that economic concerns drove many of the voters who supported Donald Trump. And of course even since taking office, President Trump has offered a very sharp critique of the American economy, often drawing attention to businesses he believes are falling short or to business decisions that he felt were not in the nation’s best interests.

But on Tuesday night the President spoke in generally and markedly optimistic tones. Now that’s important just as a study in leadership. Because at some point, a leader, while making very clear the problems that are to be faced, even the tremendous challenges the nation may face at any given moment, must also indicate an attitude of optimism in order to gather support for his own policies, but also to give a certain esprit de corps to the entire nation, not just to Congress.

Now something else you need to note in terms of this kind of address is that in the modern age, Congress itself is not the main audience. Ever since President Ronald Reagan delivered his first joint session speech, it was very clear that presidents from that point onward would address themselves to the American people. In one sense, Congress serves as something of a very dramatic backdrop to the president’s speech to the nation, and a dramatic backdrop it is.

The moment here is very important. There’s great historical consequence. There is something very, very moving about seeing a President of the United States, any President of the United States, enter the House chamber and be announced. Now why is this kind of joint session speech held in the House chamber? It’s because it is by far the larger chamber of the two houses of Congress. There is no way that a joint session could be held in the Senate chambers. So it’s held in the House, that is the People’s House, the most democratic unit of the American government, the House of Representatives, its members elected every two years. And yet as the representatives and as the Senators were gathered together, there is the sobriety, that is the historical weight, of knowing that some of the most important words ever spoken by a President of the United States were spoken in that very room and in a very similar context.

Just think back to 1941 when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress in order to point to December 7, 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor, as a date that will live in infamy even as he asked Congress for a declaration of war on the Empire of Japan. Similar words have been spoken throughout American history in key turning points, including in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, when the presidential comments were made by President George W. Bush. And in any event, even as this usually takes the form of the president’s State of the Union address, with newly elected presidents not yet in the position to give a state of the union there is often the initiative to speak to a joint session of Congress in order to offer a new platform for the continuation of the president’s administration, and that’s what was happening on Tuesday night.

Now as I said, it was President Ronald Reagan who back in 1981 set the stage for presidents speaking to the American public with Congress as something of a backdrop. It is also President Reagan who stood in something of a dramatic relief to President Trump when you compare the two addresses from 1981 to 2017. The biggest difference is in the specifics of policy. President Reagan’s speech back in 1981 was filled with very vivid detail concerning the policies his administration would propose to Congress, and he wanted to serve notice to Congress that he expected those proposals, including the details, to be enacted into law. In terms of presidential speeches and details, it’s probably true that no president could exceed the detail offered routinely by President Bill Clinton. But if any president came close, it could well be that it was President Barack Obama.

All that was background to the fact that on Tuesday night, President Trump offered some very grand proposals, big picture proposals, but when it came to exactly how he intended for those proposals to be enacted into legislation, the President was quite short on specifics and short on detail. Perhaps that was by intention, perhaps it’s because he intends for Congress, in particular the Republicans in both houses of Congress, to do the heavy lifting in terms of the details. But in terms of the grand proposals the President set forth, he promised a massive cut in taxes in order to invigorate the economy, and he also called for a significant 10% increase in defense spending. That’s an interesting issue. That means the President called for roughly a $54 billion increase in defense spending, and what’s also very noteworthy is the response in the media to that particular proposal.

Before going to that we need to note that the President also made reference to his immigration concerns and other policy proposals, and he also offered some very memorable phrases such as this,

“Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed. Every problem can be solved. And every hurting family can find healing, and hope.”

In terms of the media setup and response to the President’s speech, one of the interesting things to note is that at some level every presidential administration is at war with the media. It’s tempting now to look back through the lens of history and see the administration of a president like John F. Kennedy and believe that there was something of a romance between the President and the press then. Well, it was certainly a different time, and there certainly was some level of involvement between the President and many members of the press, but the most important thing to recognize is that President Kennedy routinely complained about his press coverage and also continually seemed to be concerned that the press was out to subvert his presidency. But that war between the President and the media is now what we might call a declared war. President Trump has made that issue very transparent, and in return the media have more or less done the same.

But those who were watching the media response to the President’s speech and also the setup for the President’s speech on Tuesday night should’ve noted something. That is this: when you look at many of the major newspapers and media outlets in the United States, they offered prior to the President’s address what they said Americans should hope the President would say and the tones that Americans should hope that the President would set. Now in terms of policy proposals, there was really nothing surprising in terms of what President Trump had to say on Tuesday night. But in terms of the tone, it appears that many in the media who basically demanded that the President appear presidential and that he sound a note of optimism, once the President had actually done those things, began to criticize him for doing it falsely, or not enough, or at least too late.

Notable here is the self-appointed role of the American media as critic and the critic of the presidency in particular, but there’s also something else to note just in terms of some of the specifics, and this is one of the reasons why many conservatives have a rather cynical approach to much of the mainstream media.

For example, an editorial comment in the Los Angeles Times complained about the President’s proposal in terms of defense spending, describing it as basically unreasonable. The editorial board of the Los Angeles Times said this, the President’s proposed shift from domestic needs to military spending deserves to be ignored. In the editorial they wrote,

“The proposal’s major piece is a $54-billion increase in the defense budget, which already consumes more than half of the federal tax dollars not spent on interest payments or entitlements. Inexplicably, the hike would beef up the country’s ability to fight the sort of overseas wars that Trump railed against during the campaign, and would come at the expense of the diplomatic and foreign aid programs designed to avert those conflicts.”

Defenders of the President would point out that building up the military after years of relative underspending would actually be an effort to avoid fighting those wars. The argument is that a strong defense is the very best offense. But we should also note something that wasn’t present but rather missing from so much of the media coverage and editorial comment concerning that aspect of President Trump’s proposal. Remember that President Trump has called for a 10% increase in defense spending, and that comes with some considerable detail about how he wants that money to be spent. That means about $54 billion in new defense spending. But what isn’t mentioned by many is that even the outgoing administration, the administration of President Barack Obama, had proposed a $35 billion increase, once again because of years of relative underspending. Many in the media seem to want Americans to understand that President Trump just came up with a 10% increase out of the blue. That is far from true. It needs to be said that President Obama had already proposed a $35 billion increase, but that fact seems to be missing from much of the news coverage. And in terms of understanding media coverage and media fairness, that’s news in itself.

What signal is being sent? Disney to have first 'exclusively gay moment' in 'Beauty and the Beast'

Next very much on the home front, Disney made a major announcement yesterday, and it ricocheted throughout the international media. As Elahe Izadi reports for the Washington Post,

“There will be some marked changes to the forthcoming live-action “Beauty and the Beast”: According to the director, the movie will break ground as Disney features an openly gay character.”

The Post continues,

“Gaston’s sidekick LeFou, played by Josh Gad, will have a small subplot relating to his sexuality.”

The film at issue here is a live version of the 1991 Disney classic, “Beauty and the Beast.” The Director of the live action movie, Bill Condon, told the gay magazine Attitude,

“LeFou is somebody who on one day wants to be Gaston and on another day wants to kiss Gaston. He’s confused about what he wants. It’s somebody who’s just realizing that he has these feelings. And Josh,” meaning Josh Gad the actor, “makes something really subtle and delicious out of it. And that’s what has its payoff at the end, which I don’t want to give away. But it is a nice, exclusively gay moment in a Disney movie.”

Yes, you heard that exactly rightly. Here you had the Director of the remake of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” speaking of one scene saying,

“It is a nice, exclusively gay moment in a Disney movie.”

The Washington Post goes on to report that,

“In recent years, Disney has increased the racial and ethnic diversity in its stories, and has made strides to reimagine female characters as fully formed protagonists rather than simply damsels in distress. But there have been calls among some for children’s entertainment to portray same-sex relationships as well.”

The Post cites a Twitter campaign last year that “asked Disney to make Elsa from “Frozen” a lesbian character in the movie’s sequel,” and that even came with the hashtag #GiveElsaAGirlfriend. The Post says that,

“A few Disney movies have left viewers wondering about the orientation of characters, with allusions to same-sex relationships. “Zootopia” featured Bucky and Pronk, two male antelopes who live together, bicker like a couple and share a common last name. An episode of the Disney Channel show “Good Luck Charlie” included a character who had two moms.”

But the Post is absolutely clear when it says that “the live-action ‘Beauty and the Beast’ will bring an overt depiction of a gay man to the big screen.”

And that’s new. The Post article cites a previous article in the same newspaper by Jessica Contrera who had argued that at least some Disney fans have suggested it would be “hugely helpful to see gay characters in such movies when they were young, and studies suggest positive depictions of gay characters in entertainment can help decrease prejudice.

Contrera had written,

“There is no doubt that kids seeing positively portrayed gay characters could have a significant effect that would contribute to such children’s learning about the world and who is in it.”

There she was citing Edward Schiappa, a professor of comparative media studies at MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But, Contrera acknowledged back then, “doing so is a risk for children’s entertainment companies, who have a financial incentive to make movies as widely accessible — and therefore as non-controversial — as possible.”

So it tells us something huge that Disney has decided that now is the right time and “Beauty and the Beast” the live-action form is the right movie in order to portray its first same-sex romantic relationship in a movie primarily directed to children. Given its outsized influence in the entertainment industry and in particular in that segment of the industry directed primarily to children, this move on the part of Disney tells us a very great deal.

First of all, it tells us that Disney now thinks that it is in its corporate interest in its brand interest to be known as the production company that comes out with a movie that has the first major same-sex relationship portrayed for children.

There’s a second thing that we learn, and that is this. The pressure on the part of so many, especially in the artistic community, to move the culture by this kind of romantic depiction is very, very powerful, so powerful that now in the year 2017, Disney has taken this major step.

There’s a third lesson here, and that is that not only are we facing what we know is a warfare for our eyeballs and for our attention, but also for our minds, and eventually for our hearts. This is where Christians thinking about our engagement with the culture and especially with entertainment need to keep a couple of issues very much in mind, and one of these is the pattern or the trajectory of media influence. This has do with the fact that even as entertainment has to be entertaining in order to be successful, once a movie or any other cultural product achieves that genuine moment of entertainment, it then has the opportunity for a far deeper influence. What entertains us effectively reaches our minds, and once it reaches our minds it also reaches our hearts. But sometimes it almost short circuits that entire equation, going immediately from the entertainment interest to the heart. Sometimes it’s as if there really isn’t much cognitive interplay whatsoever. So a lot of the people who will be watching this Disney movie will watch and be interested. They will watch and be amused. They will love the music, and they’ll follow the plot lines, and of course they will laugh at so many points in entertainment, which in movies like this offered by Disney often comes with one level for adults and another humor level for children.

But we also have to note that when we laugh at something and when we find something interesting and, not to mention, entertaining, effectively our thinking will become aligned with our hearts. That’s exactly why Hollywood is ground zero for so much of the change driving the moral revolution around us. But there is something even more ominous in all of this, and that’s this. We’re not here talking primarily about the effect upon adults, adults’ eyes and ears and minds and hearts, we’re talking about entertainment with an agenda, an agenda to reach eyes and ears and hearts and minds directed at children, and very effectively so.

I guess most of us suspected that it was only a matter of time before some film directors said something like,

“It is a nice, exclusively gay moment in a Disney movie.”

But now we know that that time is now. It may not be surprising, but it truly is shocking.

Anti-Semitism in America: Vandalism and bomb threats against Jewish communities are deeply concerning

Finally, speaking of shocking and quite distressing, a series of media reports tells us of what appears to be a concerted effort to intimidate Jewish citizens of the United States, including threats called into at least 100 Jewish community centers and also schools threatening bombs or other forms of attack. It is a concerted effort, and Americans should meet this with a concerted moral response. Even though no one has yet been hurt, the reality is that community centers and schools in our Jewish communities have been disrupted, and the threats have to be taken seriously.

All this is ominously reminiscent of Kristallnacht or Reichskristallnacht that took place on the 9th and 10th of November in 1938 when SA, brown shirts of the Nazis, raided so many Jewish communities doing grave violence and in one night destroying about 1000 Jewish synagogues. Over this two day period, 95 synagogues were destroyed in the city of Vienna alone. Anti-Semitism is one of the most vile sins of civilizations, and here we see it rearing its ugly head once again. And what’s really frightening is that this is taking place in the year 2017, even as we know that the centennial of the horrifying events of World War II lie just about a generation in front of us.

As the New York Times reported,

“The warning was one of at least 100 that Jewish community centers and schools have reported since the beginning of the year, a menacing pattern that has upended daily life for people in 33 states and prompted a federal investigation that has come under increasing scrutiny from lawmakers, security specialists and Jewish leaders.”

It was the guilty silence of so many Christian leaders in Germany in the beginning of the rise of anti-Semitism there that made the Nazi regime’s anti-Semitism possible. We must be very certain that we cannot be silent now.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing