The Briefing 06-13-17

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To the left or to the center? Democratic Party faces identity crisis ahead of 2018 elections

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Lessons from the British election: What does the disappearance of the center mean for US politics?

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News consumption in our changed media landscape and the fight for "narrative supremacy"

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Batman and Wonder Woman: What these comic book super heroes reveal about American culture

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Transcript

The Briefing

June 13, 2017

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

It’s Tuesday, June 13, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

To the left or to the center? Democratic Party faces identity crisis ahead of 2018 elections

In terms of the display of worldview issues before us, the headlines almost every day provide ample material. But from time to time, such as in yesterday’s front page of the New York Times, a microcosm appears that tells us a much bigger story. In this case, the microcosm is the Democratic Party: a headline story in yesterday’s Times written by Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin begins with this headline,

“Deepening Divide Roils Democrats As Base Tilts Left.”

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Now it’s really interesting. The subhead,

“Struggle Over Ideology and Tactics May Put ‘18 goals” that is as in 2018 goals “in Peril”

Now before looking at the story itself, here’s the background. The Democratic Party, the party in opposition, so to speak, right now the United States, the party that doesn’t hold a majority in either the house of Congress, nor does it hold the White House, would be expected to have an enormous electoral opportunity in the midyear elections coming up in 2018 and in the next general election in 2020. But the big question is, what Democratic Party will show up? And it turns out there is a significant battle within that party that tells us a great deal not only about politics but also about worldview. The reporters tell us,

“Democrats are facing a widening breach in their party, as liberal activists dream of transforming the health care system and impeaching President Trump, while candidates in hard-fought elections ask wary voters merely for a fresh chance at governing.”

So the big divide in the Democratic Party is not just between what might be called the left and the further left but between the base identified as wanting to push the party very hard left and those who are actually the elected officials of the Democratic Party who understand that the electorate is not moving in the leftward direction, certainly not in anything close to the hard left. And so one of the most interesting conflicts right now in American politics is not between the two political parties—that’s rather a constant—but within the two parties. And what made the front page of the New York Times yesterday is what’s going on as a worldview clash within the Democratic Party. As the reporters also tell us,

“It may be essential for Democrats to reconcile the party’s two clashing impulses if they are to retake the House of Representatives in 2018. In a promising political environment, a drawn-out struggle over Democratic strategy and ideology could spill into primary elections and disrupt the party’s path to a majority. On the one hand, progressives are more emboldened than they have been in decades, galvanized by Mr. Sanders’s unexpected successes in 2016 and empowered by the surge of grass-roots energy dedicated to confronting an unpopular president and pushing the party leftward.”

Now just taking those paragraphs at face value, you’ll notice that the word “ideology” appeared twice. Ideology is one of those words that politicians generally try to avoid. As a matter of fact in a holdover from the 20th century, ideology is a word that most commonly has a negative connotation. So a politician will say, “I have a political philosophy, but I’m not committed to any ideology.” But the use of that word more than once in this article reminds us that everyone actually has an ideology, everyone operates from a worldview. And what might be called a political philosophy is something of the second, third, or fourth story of the building of one’s worldview. There are more basic commitments, and that’s why the word ideology is not inappropriate in this context. Not only is it not inappropriate, it might be unavoidable.

The reporters also take us to the debate within the Democratic Party, and some of the language is very interesting. For example, speaking to a recent assembly, Mr. Sanders said,

“The current model and the current strategy of the Democratic Party is an absolute failure.”

Now keep in mind that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders ran for president as a declared Democratic Socialist. That places him, it’s safe to say, on the Democratic left. But what’s also interesting is that a significant portion of the base of the party is to the left of Senator Sanders. Senator Sanders went on to say, and I quote,

“The Democratic Party must finally understand which side it is on.”

But that raises the question, how does a Democrat know which side the Democrats are on? Then, in the next paragraph we read,

“Yet the party’s elected leaders, and many of its candidates, are far more dispassionate, sharing a cold-eyed recognition of the need to scrounge for votes in forbidding precincts. They have taken as a model,” we are told, “the Democratic campaign of 2006.”

What marked that campaign? It was the Democratic march to the center. So this is really interesting. We are told that the Democrats’ political base wants to move the party to the left, far left, and fast. Meanwhile, elected officials understand that’s not actually how they can get elected or perhaps even more interestingly stay elected. Geography also plays a very interesting role here. Remember that as I introduce Senator Sanders, I reminded us that he is an elected U.S. Senator from the state of Vermont. For Democrats to gain majorities in the House or the Senate, they really don’t need to worry too much about carrying Vermont. They need to carry suburban Atlanta and suburban Houston and Dallas and other swing states such as Iowa and Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio. That’s a very different set of voters. They are not likely to identify themselves as Democratic Socialists.

I mentioned suburban Atlanta. In just a few days an election is going to take place there in the Sixth Congressional District that could indicate something not only of the future of the Democratic Party, but of the future of the American electorate. Because there we are talking about suburban Atlanta, and in that case we have a Democratic candidate, John Ossoff, who had been the darling of the Democratic left until he began actually to reject some of the positions of the Democratic left. He’s going to be running against Karen Handel, the Republican candidate. The big question is, will this kind of Democrat win in the Sixth Congressional District in Georgia? That’s a huge test, but already many in the Democratic left are upset with this candidate because he has broken with the left on so many positions. The reason why is easy to understand. The district is not that liberal. It might be more moderate than it was just a couple of election cycles ago, but it is by no means a liberal district. One woman cited in the New York Times article from the district said,

“A lot of us are not true-blue liberals.”

Now that was a statement to the New York Times, but it was also in effect a statement to the leadership of the Democratic Party. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democratic congressman from Missouri and a former head of the Congressional Black Caucus, put it this way, speaking of the 2018 congressional elections,

“We are going to lose every possible winnable seat, in a year where there are many winnable seats, if we come across as inflexible left-wingers.”

Speaking of Senator Sanders, he said,

“I respect Bernie — I just don’t think we can become the party of Bernie.”

Lessons from the British election: What does the disappearance of the center mean for US politics?

Next, also interesting was an editorial that ran in yesterday’s edition of USA Today. It follows a similar theme and analysis. The editors of the paper released an editorial with the headline,

“Lessons for Democrats from the British Elections.”

Now this is interesting at numerous levels, one of them is most Americans don’t pay that much attention of British politics. I’ve argued on The Briefing we should. Now USA Today’s editors are effectively doing the same thing. They’re speaking of the fact that the British liberal party, it’s actually called the Labour Party, did indeed gain ground in the election, but they didn’t gain enough ground to topple the Conservative government and take power themselves. Why? Well the editors of USA Today say in that story is a signal to the Democratic Party in the United States. As they say,

“But the larger takeaway — at least on this side of the Atlantic — should be that Labour didn’t win outright despite a golden opportunity to do so.” Maybe, the writers of the editorial say, the Labour Party “should be asking themselves why they continue to be on the outside looking in.”

Then this sentence,

“They should know the answer. They positioned themselves so far to the left that you’d need a telescope to see them.”

Just in recent days on The Briefing, speaking of the British election we pointed out that one of the most interesting things that has happened in Britain is the disappearance of the political center. Now much of the same is going on in the United States. The 2016 presidential election was a demonstration of that, but so also are the battles now within the Democratic and the Republican parties in terms of self-identity and ideology. Right now, the arguments are far more interesting on the Democratic side, precisely because the Republicans are in power, and thus most of these issues are decided by those who are holding elected positions in exercising that authority; it’s the Democrats effectively, to use the language of the USA Today editors, “on the outside looking in,” who actually have the greater opportunity and the more urgent mandate to define themselves.

It’s going to be a very interesting process, and the most important thing from a Christian worldview perspective is that it reminds us of the fact that worldview underlies everything. Here it is. You have worldview showing up with words such as political strategy, political philosophy, self-identity, and ideology. When those words show up, you can understand worldview is what is really at stake. So you could put it a different way. The Democratic Party right now is having to determine which worldview, what worldview will actually become its identity in the next political season. That’s not a small question. But, of course, it’s not just a question faced by the Democratic Party. It’s a question faced by all of us inevitably.

News consumption in our changed media landscape and the fight for "narrative supremacy"

Next, speaking of worldview and worldview analysis, another whale of a story; this one also from the New York Times. Jim Rutenberg, writing the “Mediator” column that analyzes the media for the Times, tells us “alternative media offers a choice of facts,” speaking of course of last week’s testimony by the former FBI director before the Senate intelligence committee. The analysis and the political posture of the New York Times is indicated by the fact that the headline leads with the words “alternative media” and also includes the words “choice of facts.” Now that’s one of the ways that the mainstream media appear rather condescending, looking at the changes in terms of our media environment, what might be called the media ecology. But they really are interested in this, of course. They have a vital interest in it because what is happening is that in a new media ecology sources such as the New York Times have lost the monopoly they once had on how Americans receive and understand the news.

Rutenberg’s point is to compare the hearings held last week with former FBI director Comey with the now infamous congressional hearings held in the 1970s with relation to the Watergate scandal and the Nixon administration. What he writes is very revealing as much about the New York Times as about the issue that is undertaken in the article. I read,

“Of course, Watergate unfolded in a much simpler time in the media industry. There were three major news networks and PBS; a major paper or three in every city; and a political dynamic in which leaders duked it out by day and dined together at night. They did so on a solid foundation of agreed-upon facts and a sense of right and wrong that was shared if not always followed.”

Now that statement, it should be clear, reflects a great deal of nostalgia on the part of what we would call the established or formerly mainstream media. But we should also note we could actually tell that story in a very different way. For example, we could say there once was a chummy little group of those who had privileged access to the media, and they once got together and covered the stories in almost exactly the same way, having agreed upon what they would say is the story and what are the facts of the story before Americans actually had any opportunity to otherwise know about the story. And in speaking about this chummy little group, they used to “duke it out by day,” we are told, but then they would “dine together at night.”

Now that’s not just nostalgia. That’s actually the truth. There are just two different ways of looking at. If you’re looking at it from the position of the mainstream media, they have been effectively dethroned in terms of this new media ecology. If you’re looking at it on the part of say more conservative people in America, they’re going to look at it and say it’s a very good thing that media monopoly was broken. One of the interesting things in this article is the open admission, even nostalgia, for that old world in which the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, a few other newspapers, NBC, CBS, and ABC, basically ruled the entire media environment. So is it a good thing or not that that media ecology’s been transformed? In the main it is a very good thing. That monopoly was never healthy.

Of course, there are gains and losses in any kind of revolution like this. On the positive side, every single American has access to an array of media that is unprecedented not only in recent American history but in all of human history. That’s an unquestionable gain. But at the same time, there’s a loss. The loss has been in expertise and in predictable credibility. That’s not to say that all of the new forms of media lack credibility. It’s simply to say that the old standards of credibility have been thrown out the window. They no longer fit the new media age.

On The Briefing I almost always source the stories directly to the reporters and the newspaper and the edition in which a story appeared, if not a newspaper then a major television network or other very recognized media source. Why do I do that? Because they are the media sources of record. But even as I cite these articles, I then go on to give a different analysis than is found within the articles. But that means I do respect the old mainstream media for the unique expertise and particular journalistic credibility they brought to their art and craft. There was not only a comradery they shared with one another, but there was also a common set of journalistic standards to which they held themselves, and some of those still continue on today, and for that we should be very grateful. But there’s another side to that story, and it comes immediately to mind. There was a chummy little group and together they decided what we would know and what we would not know, and all too often they not only decided what they thought we should know; they were determining in advance what they would make clear we should think about, what they would report and tell us.

This is a very intelligent and interesting article. For one thing, it signals to thinking Christians by the use of one particular phrase something we should keep continually in mind as we engage with the media or, for that matter, just in terms of the cultural conversation. Rutenberg tells us that the old and new media are “fighting for narrative supremacy.” Now that’s an amazing statement. It’s also a very true statement, and from the perspective of worldview analysis, it’s one we ought to think about for a moment “fighting for narrative supremacy.”

What does that amount to? It amounts to the fact that every single worldview and every political posture in American public life takes the shape of a narrative. It’s the telling of a story, and every time we’re engaged in conversation it takes a narrative shape. Narrative supremacy is a claim for truth. Narrative supremacy is a political argument. Narrative supremacy is also deeply reflective of worldview. The way you see the story and another person with a different worldview will see the story is very different. What you see taking place in the media is exactly what Jim Rutenberg describes here. It is a struggle for “narrative supremacy.” We need to understand that.

When we are reading a news story, when we’re watching something that we get in terms of television or on the web, any time we’re engaged in conversation, we are actually engaged in a struggle for narrative supremacy. Who gets to tell the story? How is the story going to be told? What is the story, after all? Christians also have to constantly remind ourselves we’re not just interested in the better story. We are most interested in the true story. But at the bottom line we need to understand that all around us is this great find, a great fight going on for “narrative supremacy,” lest we ever forget.

Batman and Wonder Woman: What these comic book super heroes reveal about American culture

Next, continuing to think about how Christians engage the culture, I raise for the first time I think on The Briefing Batman and Robin. The occasion is the obituary for Adam West, the actor who in the 1960s played Batman on the short-lived ABC series. It didn’t last very long, but it truly became iconic. Adam West died at age 88 last Friday in Los Angeles. Bill Keveney, writing the obituary for USA Today, tells us,

“With all due respect to Ben Affleck, Christian Bale and Michael Keaton, Adam West is Batman. At least West — who died Friday — is for millions who grew up with the campy Caped Crusader he played on ABC’s whirlwind Batman phenomenon in the late ‘60s.”

He goes on to say,

“West’s bromide-dropping, milk-drinking depiction was completely at odds with the forbidding Dark Knight, a great character of comic books and and more recent films, and the TV show’s primary-color, over-the-top take is often derided by superhero purists. But he was the Batman we knew. He was ours. We all tend to bond tightly with elements of our youth, no matter how biff-bam-pow silly they may seem later through the more jaded vision of adulthood.”

Similarly, Anita Gates, writing the obituary for the New York Times, tells us,

“The show’s off-kilter camera angles and superimposed dialogue balloons representing fight-scene sound effects like ‘pow!’ and ‘splat!’ were among the elements that led it to be viewed as high camp. Mr. West dismissed that label but proudly described the show as farce.”

Gates then goes on to write,

“Batman, the crime-fighting alias of Bruce Wayne, a bachelor millionaire in Gotham City, was created as a comic-book character in 1939 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger.” The article then goes on to tell us, “(He was soon joined by a young sidekick, Robin the Boy Wonder.)”

Gates then tells us,

“Mr. West’s television version was painfully clean-cut, a milk-drinking model citizen whose reaction to extreme frustration might be, ‘He’s right, darn it!’”

So what makes this particularly interesting from a Christian worldview perspective? Well, for one thing think about that obituary in USA Today. It openly contrasts Adam West’s character Batman from that ABC series in 1960s with the darker versions of Batman that followed to great popularity in the 1980s and 90s and beyond. What was the distinction? A vast change in the way the Batman story was depicted, most importantly the shift from the milk drinking Bruce Wayne portrayed by Adam West to the Dark Knight of later movie depictions. This represents a vast change in what Americans were looking for in entertainment. It reflects a vast change in the tolerance level of Americans for depictions of evil and darkness.

But perhaps it also tells us, and many media analysts focused on this, about the change in what Americans are looking for from a superhero. The change from Adam West Batman to the Batman of later depiction was not just a change in acting style, nor is it just a shift from what might have been considered camp television of the 1960s to the very dark cinema of more recent decades. It was a shift in the mentality of the distinction between good and evil. One of the most interesting changes here was that the later Batman movies tended to blur the distinction. Even as Batman himself was referred to as the Dark Knight, there was a shift in the character that was imputed to Batman, a shift in a far more conflicted than darker direction.

Now at the same time this story should remind us to think a bit more carefully about the comics in general, about the great fight for the narrative supremacy that takes place not only in the news but in the cinema and in popular culture and about the comics and movies in particular.

We need to keep this in mind in terms of the recent release of the motion picture on Wonder Woman. Now most Americans looking at that might think there’s nothing particularly worldview that is at stake there. But there is, as a matter of fact.

Brent Staples, writing in the editorial “Observer” column for the New York Times, reminds us that Wonder Woman has been effectively weaponized, and that the trajectory of the Wonder Woman narrative tells us also a great deal about American culture. Most Americans, for example, do not understand that Wonder Woman appeared as a feminist character. Not only that, there are very capable historians who argue that she was modeled after Margaret Sanger, who became the founder of what we now know as Planned Parenthood. Staples tells us, and I quote,

“Wonder Woman’s creator, the psychologist William Moulton Marston, viewed her as a propaganda tool in the struggle for women’s rights. As the historian Jill Lepore explains in ‘The Secret History of Wonder Woman,’ Mr. Marston drew heavily on the philosophies of the women’s suffrage and reproductive rights movements as he plotted out his story. He settled on an Amazon heroine who hails from an island where women had lived without men since ancient times. She moves to the United States to fight for peace, justice — and equal rights for women.”

Now I will not go into further detail, but this article also makes clear that there was a darker, sexualized side to the story. But that mostly appeared in the comic strips, not so much in the recently released movie. Released in 1941, Wonder Woman became somewhat controversial, but the controversy wasn’t limited to this particular character. As Staples writes, back at that time,

“Fearing a backlash, publishers submitted voluntarily to a repressive code that ruled out pathbreaking content. Words like ‘horror,’ ‘crime’ and ‘terror’ were limited, and plotlines had to promote ‘the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage.’”

As we so often think, here again we simply have to say, evidently, that was then, and now we are facing a very different reality. And that old code by which the comic strips were conducted is now derided as repressive. So we come back once again to that struggle for narrative supremacy. You not only see it in the news, you see it in the comic strips in the comic books. You also see it in the movies. Actually when you begin to understand what’s at stake, you see it virtually everywhere.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing