Centrist bias

Because I really liked it, I’m reaching back from before Christmas to highlight David Leonhardt’s excellent column on “centrism” bias in the media.  This is so damn true:

John F. Harris is about as mainstream as the mainstream media gets. He spent 21 years at The Washington Post, including as its political editor. Then he became the founding editor of Politico, where he is now a columnist.

Last month, Harris wrote a column that I can’t get out of my head. In it, he argued that political journalism suffers from “centrist bias.” As he explained, “This bias is marked by an instinctual suspicion of anything suggesting ideological zealotry, an admiration for difference-splitting, a conviction that politics should be a tidier and more rational process than it usually is.” [emphases mine]

The bias caused much of the media to underestimate Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Donald Trump in 2016. It also helps explain the negative tone running through a lot of the coverage of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders this year.

Centrist bias, as I see it, confuses the idea of centrism (which is very much an ideology) with objectivity and fairness. It’s an understandable confusion, because American politics is dominated by the two major parties, one on the left and one on the right. And the overwhelming majority of journalists at so-called mainstream outlets — national magazines, newspapers, public radio, the non-Fox television networks — really are doing their best to treat both parties fairly.

In doing so, however, they often make an honest mistake: They equate balance with the midpoint between the two parties’ ideologies. Over the years, many press critics have pointed out one weakness of this approach: false equivalence, the refusal to consider the possibility that one side of an argument is simply (or mostly) right

“The most consequential history,” Harris wrote, “is usually not driven by the center.”

Political and economic journalism too often assumes otherwise and treats the center as inherently sensible. This year’s Democratic presidential campaign has been a good case study. The skeptical questions posed to the more moderate Democrats are frequently about style or tactics: Are you too old? Too young? Too rich? Too far behind in the polls?

The skeptical questions for the more progressive candidates, Sanders and Warren, often challenge the substance of their ideas: Are you too radical? Are you being realistic? And, by golly, how would you pay for it all?

I recently took a detailed look through the coverage of the wealth tax, favored by both Sanders and Warren, and centrist bias seeps through much of it…

But maybe that’s why we recognize it and pine for more objective coverage. Not every policy question posed to Democrats needs to have a conservative assumption, and not every question posed to Republicans needs to have a liberal one. If Warren and Sanders are going to be asked whether their solutions go too far, Joe Biden should be asked whether his solutions are too timid: Mr. Vice President, many economists believe that inequality is bad for an economy, so are you doing enough to attack inequality?

Once you start thinking about centrist bias, you recognize a lot of it…

The world is more surprising and complicated than centrist bias imagines it to be. Sometimes, people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are right. Even when they’re not, they deserve the same skepticism that other politicians do — no less, no more.

Damn that was good.  And if I were teaching media and politics this semester, you better believe that would be required reading.  A closely related bias is the “both sides!” bias.  The unfortunate truth that so much mainstream political journalism is motivated by a strong, but incredibly shallow, desire to not appear biased, which is generally accomplished through this bias for centrism and reflexive “both sides!” reporting more so than a motivation to actually explain political reality to Americans.  The reason I love Vox is that when it is doing it’s straight-up political reporting (don’t get me started on their culture and identity politics stuff), they do this as well as anyone.

Photo of the day

Gallery of animals rescued from Australian fires:

A koala named Paul, from the Lake Innes Nature Reserve, is treated for burns at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, in Port Macquarie, Australia, on November 29, 2019. #

Nathan Edwards / Getty

Hell yeah!

Yes, I’m a practicing Catholic, but definitely not much of a believer in hell, as traditionally seen in our culture.  Much like, I reflexively and instinctively reject the all-too-comforting notion of heaven, that many seem to have of cavorting with lost loved ones.  Some things, to me, seem just too transparently conceived to make us feel good about death, i.e., just rewards and just punishments.

One of my favorite This American Life episodes (from waaay back), “Heretics“, features a Pentacostal pastor who comes to reject the idea of hell.

Why am I writing about this?  Because I loved this Op-Ed in the Times from a Philosophy and Religion scholar, “Why Do People Believe in Hell? The idea of eternal damnation is neither biblically, philosophically nor morally justified. But for many it retains a psychological allure.”

It’s comforting to imagine that Christians generally accept the notion of a hell of eternal misery not because they’re emotionally attached to it, but because they see it as a small, inevitable zone of darkness peripheral to a larger spiritual landscape that — viewed in its totality — they find ravishingly lovely. And this is true of many.

But not of all. For a good number of Christians, hell isn’t just a tragic shadow cast across one of an otherwise ravishing vista’s remoter corners; rather, it’s one of the landscape’s most conspicuous and delectable details.

I know whereof I speak. I’ve published many books, often willfully provocative, and have vexed my share of critics. But only recently, in releasing a book challenging the historical validity, biblical origins, philosophical cogency and moral sanity of the standard Christian teaching on the matter of eternal damnation, have I ever inspired reactions so truculent, uninhibited and (frankly) demented.

I expect, of course, that people will defend the faith they’ve been taught. What I find odd is that, in my experience, raising questions about this particular detail of their faith evinces a more indignant and hysterical reaction from many believers than would almost any other challenge to their convictions. Something unutterably precious is at stake for them. Why? …

Surely it would be welcome news if it turned out that, on the matter of hell, something got garbled in transmission. And there really is room for doubt.

No truly accomplished New Testament scholar, for instance, believes that later Christianity’s opulent mythology of God’s eternal torture chamber is clearly present in the scriptural texts. It’s entirely absent from St. Paul’s writings; the only eschatological fire he ever mentions brings salvation to those whom it tries (1 Corinthians 3:15). Neither is it found in the other New Testament epistles, or in any extant documents (like the Didache) from the earliest post-apostolic period. There are a few terrible, surreal, allegorical images of judgment in the Book of Revelation, but nothing that, properly read, yields a clear doctrine of eternal torment. Even the frightening language used by Jesus in the Gospels, when read in the original Greek, fails to deliver the infernal dogmas we casually assume to be there.

On the other hand, many New Testament passages seem — and not metaphorically — to promise the eventual salvation of everyone. For example: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” (Romans 5:18) Or: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:22) Or: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2) (Or: John 13:32; Romans 11:32; 1 Timothy 2:3-6; 4:10; Titus 2:11; and others.)…

Theological history can boast few ideas more chilling than the claim (of, among others, Thomas Aquinas) that the beatitude of the saved in heaven will be increased by their direct vision of the torments of the damned (as this will allow them to savor their own immunity from sin’s consequences). But as awful as that sounds, it may be more honest in its sheer cold impersonality than is the secret pleasure that many of us, at one time or another, hope to derive not from seeing but from being seen by those we leave behind.

How can we be winners, after all, if there are no losers? Where’s the joy in getting into the gated community and the private academy if it turns out that the gates are merely decorative and the academy has an inexhaustible scholarship program for the underprivileged? What success can there be that isn’t validated by another’s failure? What heaven can there be for us without an eternity in which to relish the impotent envy of those outside its walls?

Not to sound too cynical. But it’s hard not to suspect that what many of us find intolerable is a concept of God that gives inadequate license to the cruelty of which our own imaginations are capable.

Good stuff.  But, I think lacking in a social-psychological perspective (damn Philosophy professors thinking they’re too good for social science!).  What strikes me as glaringly lacking from this analysis is Just World bias.  I really think it’s more about wanting “bad” people to be genuinely punished than feeling that a heavenly reward means less without hell.  In fact, I think you could do some cool social science research on that matter.

Anyway, very interesting and thought-provoking stuff.

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