[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions ]
Intro: This is Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can subscribe on Acast, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.
Susan Hoffman: I am Susan Hoffman, the Director of OLLI at Berkeley. Today’s town hall is posed as a question, a path to unity, American democracy, building unity, social trust and civil society. As an OLLI member or a campus colleague, you are invited to join us over the next hour and 15 minutes where Global Studies and Politics Professor Darren Zook will frame our discussion and introduce four esteemed colleagues from campus who will provide insight for our exchange, A Path to Unity, Darren Zook.
Darren Zook: Welcome, everyone, just hanging out in my beach house, as I always like to. So great to see you, we have a lot to talk about today, so I just want to do a very brief introduction. The motivating factor behind this was, this may surprise all of you, but the last four years have been kind of rough, and some people have hinted there might be an element of, I don’t know, difference and division in the country.
We now have a new administration that’s talking in terms of unity, we even have a Bruce Springsteen commercial that said, we all have to move to the center. I thought, it’s a good time to step back and see, is that possible? Is it desirable? If it is possible, if it is desirable, how might we get there, and how long it might take?
We’ve got a great line of people who are here to share their insights and their expertise with you. I’m not going to cut into any more of their time, but let me just tell you the format as they are talking. If you have questions, or comments or insights or anything, please put them in the chat section on Zoom. After the speakers have given us their insights, I will be fielding the questions, and I’ll condense them, I’ll read them out and field them and direct them to which of our panelists it might be most appropriate for.
Please feel free to do that as we are speaking. Okay, I think you’re all professionals at this. Anyway, I’m telling you this, but I know you’re all seasoned professionals, you’re like Zoom experts at this point, but just a small reminder. We’re going to start off our… We’ve got, like I said, four panelists, we’re going to go for about five to seven minutes each. I’m going to start with David Hollinger who is a professor emeritus of history right here at UC Berkeley. If you don’t know his work, you should know his work. It’s amazing stuff, and he’s got much to draw on as he gives us his insights. I’m going to turn the screen over to you, David.
David Hollinger: Thanks, Darren. I’ll try to speak to three questions. One, where are we now in this country as regards to the relation of religion to politics? Second, how did we get where we are? Third, what are the challenges for increasing trust among a variety of Americans? The first question, where are we? We are at a unique place in American history, in that Christianity has become more than ever before a refuge and an instrument for the most conservative of Americans, conservative culturally, theologically, and politically.
Now, throughout American history, Christianity has been a vast and multitudinous presence. We’ve had Christians doing all kinds of things politically with various degrees of intensity. But right now, the situation is very different. The Republican Party is heavily dependent on a single ethno-religious constituency, white evangelical Protestants.
There are plenty of other kinds of Christians around, but they’re not as salient to public affairs as white evangelical Protestants. How did we get here? Well, three things above all are responsible for this. One is the Republican Party’s decision to adopt the southern strategy. Remember, in the early ’70s, Nixon and his people, especially Lee Atwater, calculated that the best future for the Republican Party was to identify white Southerners as their constituency.
They specifically welcomed the Voting Rights Act because they said, if Black people start voting, the white Southerners will all become Republicans, and that’s exactly what happened. Now, the southern strategy that was consolidated when Ronald Reagan begins his campaign in 1980, he began it standing on the graves of the great Neshoba County martyrs. He went to Mississippi, and he advocated states rights in Neshoba County. People had no trouble understanding the southern strategy, and it developed over the years.
Now, the significance of the southern strategy for evangelicalism is that evangelical Protestants are more dominant in the states of the old confederacy than anywhere else in the country. When you move to white Southerners in the south, you catapult evangelical Protestantism to the center of American politics. The southern strategy, as it’s developed over the decades by the Republican Party, is the key thing to understanding why evangelical Protestantism has such a really big thing. Evangelical Protestantism would be there anyway, but it wouldn’t be so big. That’s one thing.
Second thing is the special culture of white evangelical Protestantism. Now, all the way back to the 19th century, evangelical Protestantism has had a strong anti-intellectual bent, suspicion of learned elites, suspicion of expertise.
Many of you will have read somewhere along the way in college or wherever, Richard Hofstadter’s great book of 1964, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life , which has a great chapter on evangelical Protestants in the 19th century. Now, later historians have built on this in 20th century and early 21st century history, pointing out how suspicious evangelical Protestants have been of modern learning.
Suspicious of the Darwinian revolution in natural history, okay, that’s the most famous part, yet more suspicious of historical biblical criticism. Evangelical Protestants, until very recently, have resisted the understanding that Isaiah was written by three people, have resisted the idea that many of the letters of Paul were not even written by Paul, have resisted all sorts of things that historical critics have come up with. There’s an anti-intellectualism and isolation, that’s part of the evangelical culture.
Now, we had a very rich series of studies by historians and sociologists the last few years on this, I’m going to recommend one book. If you can only read one book about American evangelical Protestantism today, read the book called Jesus and John Wayne. Now, that’s an easy title to remember, Jesus and John Wayne, by historian named Kristin Du Mez who teachers at the Calvin College in Michigan.
This is a fantastically good book in explaining what American evangelicalism is today as a cultural phenomenon, a political phenomenon, a theological phenomenon. Deep anti-intellectualism is a very important part of evangelical Protestantism as it presents itself today. You can see Fauci being rejected. Nobody wants to pay attention to Fauci because he’s on the other side, too much of an expert. You have a history of antagonism of evangelical Protestants to higher education, especially. This goes all the way back to the 19th century, and it’s very intense. Today, some of you may have noticed that the state legislature in Florida today passed a resolution requiring that every faculty member at the University of Florida be interviewed for their political views, once a year, so that the state can make sure that you don’t have too many of the wrong kinds of people.
Okay, that’s driven, even Republicans of the state of Florida. That’s where that comes from. The third thing that helps us understand where we are, is what, for lack of a better term, I will call secularization. Now, more and more Americans have moved away from religion of any kind, especially from Christianity. During the last 50 years, there’s a 40% decline in Catholic membership, 40% decline of the traditional European ethnic stock. There are a lot of new Catholics, a lot of Hispanic Catholics coming in, but still doesn’t compensate for it. You’ve got a huge decline about Catholics.
Liberal Protestants, mainline Protestants, even sharper decline. The Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, almost all these things have lost between 35% and 45% since 1967, when the decline began. You have fewer and fewer liberal Protestants. The Pew Foundation, that’s a very good outfit with all of their polls, they found in 2019, that more than a quarter of Americans as polled, no longer profess any religious affiliation whatsoever.
Now, that’s increased, there’s only 8% in the early 1990s. You have more and more Americans pulling back from involvement of churches of any kind. Now, there are plenty of Christians that are still active in these churches. You’ve got Black Protestants, you’ve got white Catholics, Hispanic Catholics, you’ve got non-evangelical… They’re still out there, but there aren’t as many.
The significance of that is, as American Christianity becomes a more hollowed out edifice, white evangelical Protestants, very entrepreneurial, very enterprising, move into the vacated space. Secularization facilitates the advancement of evangelical Protestants, white evangelical Protestants become more and more important, and that has huge educational effects. The most highly educated people in the United States are people who have left the Protestant church and left the Catholic Church. Education increases with secularization, okay?
Now, there are many exceptions to that. Plenty of smart, really educated people continue to profess their faith, they do. But statistically, it’s a huge difference. Whereas, a lot of people in the churches, less educated. I’m going to give an example about evangelicals, as late as the 1970s, almost 1/5 of all Southern Baptist ministers had no education beyond high school.
Now, that’s an extreme case, the Southern Baptist, but they’re similar on the Church of the Nazarene, the Seventh Day Adventist, and so forth. You have this vast difference, and I’m just about to close up here, I’ll wait until later to say some of the things that I would like to say about where we go from here. But mostly, I’m a historian, what you mostly need to hear from me is how we got where we are. Thanks Darren.
Darren Zook: Thanks very much, David. You covered an amazing amount in such a short amount of time, and I’m sure we’ll have lots of questions from that. I am going to move right along, because I’m aware that an hour will go by very quickly. Next up, we have Sandra Bass, she is the dean and director of UC Berkeley’s very, very fine Public Service Center. If you don’t know the work of Public Service Center, I encourage you to go to the website and read all about their wonderful work. Sandra is going to share her insights on well, what we can do, perhaps or whether we can get to the Center. I’ll let her take it away from here. I yield the virtual screen to you, Sandra.
Sandra Bass: Thank you, Darren. As much as I love the promotion, I’m an Associate Dean. I thought I should correct that. Every year I try to spend the time before the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday really in reflection. This year, I was sitting at home, and it was on the weekend before the holiday. As you may recall, the new footage about what had happened inside the house in the senate during the siege on the Capitol was released that Saturday, and I spent much of the day watching that footage.
As an African American descendant of enslaved people, witnessing the desecration of the Capitol led me to reflect on my own family’s relationship to this country and our government. One of my great grandfathers was born in 1869, which is four years after emancipation, and his portrait hangs in my parents’ home. The history isn’t that long ago. I’ve also had family members that have served in nearly every war since World War II. To this day, the elders in my family fly the American flag three times a year; Veterans Day, Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.
After I had gotten a few years of college under my belt, and I thought I knew a few things, I remember challenging my grandfather, who had served in World War II, and asking him, “Why on Earth would you fly that flag, given how this country has treated us?” I’ll never forget him replying, emphatic, “Because it’s our country. We built it.”
To watch this enraged, predominantly white mob try to destroy the people’s houses of government, rather than accept full inclusion and full equality for the Black people, brown people, immigrants who have built it, and who still hold out hope for this country’s future, even as our communities bear the wounds of generations of exclusion and violence was stunning. I didn’t feel anger per se. I wasn’t surprised. This kind of mob violence has occurred all throughout American history.
What I did think as I looked at that mob was that those actions were not grounded in any understanding of liberation as they seem to think. But rather, in the same self-destructive entitlement, fear and despair that is fueling rampant drug addiction and accelerating suicide rates among destabilized white people in this country. That those elites who have done the most to foment the violence will then immediately call for unity rather than accountability for those involved was farcical.
To be fair, the call for unity was also coming out of democratic circles, as you mentioned, Darren. In his inaugural address, President Biden use the word “unity” or “uniting” 11 times, which drew the ire of those on the left and the right. Given his political history, I believe Biden is sincere. But I understand why some find his call for unity premature.
Where we are today is a result of decades upon decades of systemic and structural race, class and gender based injustice. To think that we can just jump over all of that and leave it unexamined and unresolved and go straight to unity is not just unrealistic, it ignores the genuine harm these systems have and continue to perpetuate, and suggest we all just need to move on without addressing them. We can’t leapfrog over the damage that has been done. We have to go through it, not around it.
Given our history, any hope of moving towards some understanding of our shared humanity, and our shared destinies, or require us to go through the painstaking process of truth telling, and reparation in all its dimensions.
What does that mean? We need to reconstruct our history and reimagine the American narrative, to reflect the breadth of American history, our shadows and our light. Realizing that we’re repairing our democracy will also require economic reforms to reduce this ridiculous and extreme economic stratification, and political and structural reforms such as maybe changing the redistricting process, maybe term limits for supreme court justices or resizing national political representation.
But what I’d like to highlight today is the relation-based work that is happening around this country at the state and local level, around voter mobilization, historical truth telling, community organizing and conflict transformation.
When Georgia flips to blue in the 2020 election, many were shocked because Georgia has a long history of electing right wing candidates. However, Stacey Abrams, and many others have spent the last decade deploying a relational organizing strategy to flip Georgia. Now, relational organizing is not new. The basic theory is that people are more likely to do things like vote if someone they already know engages, encourages them. Relational organizing focuses on building ongoing relationships in community based organizations. They’re less candidate centric, and emphasize that elections are inflection points, not the end game.
They energize voters by focusing on how voting builds community power to some extent, regardless of whether they are enthralled by the candidate, or win a particular election. These organizers stay in relationship with those communities beyond the electoral cycle, to continue supporting them in building their power. This strategy is being deployed around the country and built the kind of connectivity that can be harnessed to fuel larger movements.
For example, in 2016, I traveled with a group of Cal students to North Carolina, to engage in nonpartisan voter mobilization. We walked precincts with many organizations, including the NAACP, which was then led by Reverend William Barber Jr. Rightly so, at that point, much of their relational organizing was about the election and pushing back against the multitude of voter suppression bills that have been passed. Today, that relational organizing work has served as the groundwork that fuels the poor people’s campaign, which is a multi-state, multiracial, multi-identity movement, led by Reverend Barber, that takes aim at voter suppression and poverty, and mass incarceration and ecological devastation and militarism. You get the point, it’s a much broader movement.
The other local organizing I would like to lift up is the proliferation of work happening around the country aimed at historical truth telling, conflict transformation and relational reparations. This work has also been around for decades, but in the last 20 years or so has really taken off. These include efforts such as coming to the table, a national network that seeks to address anti-Black racism by engaging the descendants of enslaved people and slave owners in difficult conversations about the enduring impacts of slavery. Or the word Bryan Stevenson has been doing, he’s the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. He spearheaded the development of the National Museum for Peace and Justice, which is more commonly known as the Lynching Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, and it’s a means of telling the truth about lynching in America and its legacy.
Restorative justice, conflict transformation model that focuses on addressing harms and repairing relationships has been mainstreamed at schools around the country, including our own here at Cal. Even police departments around the country are taking affirmative steps towards these kinds of relational reparations. The last year, I co-moderated a listening session between the San Francisco Police Department and the San Francisco LGBTQ+ community. Where the department heard the harms the police had committed against this community, and Chief William Scott issued a formal apology for those actions.
Even more promising are the efforts to redefine what community safety means, by focusing on strengthening families and communities and recognizing that our current system is as damaging and harmful to police officers, as it is to the communities in which they work. These are all baby steps, but they’re steps, nonetheless.
Our conversation today is largely going to focus on our political crisis. But we are living within a time of looming systemic collapse on multiple dimensions. Even if we were to act earnestly and urgently to address these crises, there’s a fair chance we’re still going to be brokenhearted, because the challenges we face are entrenched and they’re immense. But if we stand in our own broken-heartedness, as well as embrace the broken-heartedness of others, continue to do the work that has been put before us to do and retain our faith and the capacity of people to be creative and compassionate, to grow, to change, to even surprise us, and I’ve been surprised many times, we may find that our work has value unto itself, regardless of the outcome.
With providence on our side to paraphrase the great African American theologian and civil rights leader Vincent Harding, “We may find ourselves inching closer to realizing an America that has never been, but may yet be possible.” Thank you.
Darren Zook: Thank you, Sandra. That was, again, an amazing amount of information in such a short amount of time. So many people are like, “Unity is a great idea, but where do we start?” It’s wonderful to know that people have already started this. It’s a work in progress. We just have to further it in the right direction. Thank you for your insights. I am going to move right along because time is passing rapidly. Next up we have the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism, Geeta Anand, and she’s going to share with us her insights about the media. What can I say about… If you don’t know this, this isn’t a partisan statement, but we have the best school of journalism in the world. That’s scientifically proven. Anyway, I will now turn the virtual screen over to you, Geeta, it’s all yours.
Geeta Anand: Thank you so much. As all of you probably sadly know, distrust in the media is sky high right now, and disinformation proliferates. I’ve spent my life working for five different newspapers. I came to Berkeley three years ago as a professor, and then recently became dean of the School of Journalism. But I worked at the New York Times , The Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe , and two local newspapers in New England, Cape Cod News and the Rutland Herald .
So many of them, all of them, actually, produce amazing journalism. At the Graduate School of Journalism, we’re teaching our students how to probe deeply and spend time with people and win trust and hold our governments accountable. The heartbreaking thing and the really disturbing thing is we can be doing the most amazing journalism ever, but half of the people in the country aren’t even paying any attention to our journalism. If they did, they wouldn’t believe it.
The polarization of the media, and of this country is just so vast. The problem, as you all know, is if we can’t even agree on a set of facts, how are we as a democracy going to have the debate and dialogue that’s essential to making crucial decisions on which our existence is based?
Here are some things that I think would help. One of the things I’m acutely aware of, being a journalist and being dean of the School of Journalism, is that local news is dying and has been dying for some time, killed in part by social media. That has been a problem, because study after study has shown that if communities actually know the journalists who cover them, and see them engaged in covering their communities, they actually trust the journalism more.
As local outlets have died, and our national and international publications have pulled back from covering local news, or pulled back from covering regional news, communities don’t see themselves covered by people they know, and they don’t see themselves being covered well, they just see themselves being covered when disasters strike. So, they stop trusting and believing in the media entirely.
One thing that would definitely help is investing in local news as much as possible. One idea I have, besides nonprofits investing in local news, and there’s a big push for that, but another idea I have is for universities to invest in the communities around them, in journalism and the communities around them. Since I’ve become Dean, I’ve invested more in two news websites that Berkeley Journalism publishes. One is Richmond Confidential , and the other is Oakland North . I just hired an editor to make sure both of those new sites are year-round, so that we can hire students year round to cover those communities.
In Richmond, Richmond Confidential is the only independent source of news, the other being the Richmond Standard , which is funded by Chevron. Investing in local news is key and would help. The other thing is just a transformation of journalism, in general, toward more solutions oriented journalism. We need to hold government accountable. But that can’t be all we do. We need to also engage in journalism that helps build communities.
There are many bold experiments going on to focus on solutions journalism, and I think more and more news publications around the world need to focus on that. When we have focused on it, communities have engaged deeply and it’s helped to build trust in the media. The question is, what to do about social media and the misinformation being spread on social media. Social media has resisted being seen as a news publication, and our laws don’t recognize Facebook, and these other platforms as news publications, and doesn’t hold them responsible for their content. This is a huge problem.
We can’t rebuild trust in even basic facts in the media, and in democracy and bridge polarization, unless we have a deep reform in social media. That is going to require involvement from all spheres of life, all different disciplines. There’s no single solution to the problem. It will require new laws, revisions of old laws, social media could be a partner in this, it could be allies, but they have a huge potential to be adversarial.
The question is: Are we up to the task? In this deeply polarized state that we’re in, do we have the ability to solve the problem? There could not be a more important challenge right now, because our survival as a civilization, whether we can solve the climate crisis, whether we can prevent wars, all depends on us being able to bridge this polarization and return to a state where we can actually engage in a dialogue based on a belief in a set of facts. With that, I’ll turn this back over to Darren and to the next speaker. Thank you.
Darren Zook: Thank you so much, Geeta. That was, again, amazing insights, a lot to talk about. I see questions rolling into the chat, and that’s great, too. I’m going to turn now to our last speaker, and if I get your last name wrong, please correct me immediately. I’m going to say Eliah Bures.
Eliah Bures: Pretty good.
Darren Zook: Did I get that? Okay, there it is. Eliah is a historian by training, and he is currently a visiting fellow right here at UC Berkeley, the Center for Right-Wing Studies. He’s going to, well, bring us his insights now. The screen is all yours, Eliah.
Eliah Bures: Thanks, Darren. Good morning to everybody. I wanted to start by quibbling with the title of this event, just a little bit. The title is “A Path to Unity: American Democracy, Social Trust and Civil Society in the Biden Era.” It occurred to me as I was thinking about what I might say this morning, that “unity” may be the wrong word. As historians are forever reminding us, and despite the name of our country, the United States, we do not have a very united history. The election of 1800 was one of the most vitriolic in our nation’s history. In a country this large and this diverse, it’s always full of disagreements, arguments, fractures.
I wonder if unity puts a false goal in front of us. I wonder if what we should strive for more is something like solidarity and pluralism. I don’t know if I have better language for that, or how we might describe that, but it’s something that, it’s not homogenizing. To me, unity, it suggests something too monastic, as though half the country is supposed to convert to the beliefs of the other half, which, frankly, is a fanciful idea. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen.
But whatever we call it, I think I can say something based on my own work about the obstacles to it. I wanted to try to put together some thoughts around what I would call catastrophism, or catastrophic thinking. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the past year. Catastrophism is the interpretive framework that looks at current events, and sees impending doom, destruction is nigh. Not just is destruction, over the horizon, but the other side is its author.
The important thing to note about this, I think, is that it’s always an interpretive framework, it’s always a way of looking at the present as poised between both a past and a present, and the present is something that we speculate about. We’re seeing a historical process, we’re seeing ourselves in the present moment, and we have certain options, certain choices that face us, and some of these will lead to salvation, and some of these will lead to destruction.
It’s an interpretive framework. It’s something that we choose, it’s something that is culturally mediated, it’s something that’s fostered in various ways, but catastrophism itself, is not, per se an objective situation. I spent the past couple of weeks watching Tucker Carlson’s show. Tucker Carlson is not a fringe figure. Tucker Carlson is one of most popular cable news personalities in the country today. I think he has his finger pretty squarely on the mainstream of the right, at this moment in our history.
These are some things that Tucker Carlson claimed, over the past couple of weeks, things that he tried to convince his audience of. One is that the U.S. Military has gone woke, meaning that it’s no longer concerned principally with defending the lives and security of Americans. Instead, its concern now in the Biden era is to put through a radical social engineering agenda. I think Tucker was referring specifically to efforts to combat extremism and radicalization in the ranks.
Tucker also claimed to his audience that baseball, that most American of sports is being destroyed by politicization, and he was referring to the decision by Major League Baseball to move the venue for the All Star game from Atlanta to, I think it ended up in Colorado due to Georgia’s new voter restrictions. Tucker also claimed that the Biden administration will take everyone’s guns. There’s no room for nuance here.
The catastrophic lens is one of the reasons why the right so tenaciously resists any gun safety legislation, because it’s forever presented as just one step on a slippery slope, which will inevitably lead to federal agents raiding your home at 2 a.m. and seizing all your firearms. It’s always the catastrophic lens when we talk about guns.
Tucker also claimed that talk of toxic masculinity has reduced American men to quivering [inaudible]. Tucker, then, in another episode claimed that the Green New Deal would spur runaway inflation and destroy the economy. If memory serves, he claimed that the inflation would be so bad that by the end of Biden’s first term, ordinary Americans, especially retirees, people on fixed incomes, would be priced out of staple foods like flour and sugar. That’s the extent of inflation he was predicting.
These are all examples of how Tucker Carlson talks about current events to his audience. I also, when I was watching him, I recall that, I think it was in the summer of 2020, last year, in the lead up to the election, he claimed that if the Democrats won, they would create a single-party state that would inflict punishment on Trump voters for they’re support of Donald Trump.
These are the sorts of ways that mainstream right-wing media in our country talks to conservative voters. It’s by no means just Tucker. I was looking at books on my shelves, Ben Shapiro, the podcaster and pundant, this is his most recent book, How to Destroy America in Three Steps . Spoiler alert, he blames the left for destroying America.
The catastrophic lens, I think, is very important to understanding where we’re at today and the obstacles to any kind of not even unity, but the kind of solidarity and pluralism that I was talking about, that would contain enough social trust to allow good faith problem solving and dialogue to even take place. The significance of this, I think I can try to sum up pretty briefly, one is that, the right-wing media, one of the things that it has done over the last 30 years, I’m thinking especially going back to the 1990s and the culture war that’s been waged under the influence of people like Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich, one of the things it’s done is the GOP has become trapped by an electorate that has been cultivated to think in these incessantly catastrophic terms.
I don’t think everyone in the GOP leadership is necessarily a catastrophist in their own thinking. But the problem is that they are afraid of being primary on the right, they’re afraid of being labeled rhinos, Republicans in name only. They, in some ways have become trapped by their own electorate. This is an argument that the political scientist, these are the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, the political scientist Thomas Patterson has recently made, that the Republican Party has set for itself a number of traps that make it unable to change, unable to adapt to a changing demographic.
One is definitely that it is trapped in its own media. But the other, I think the reason why catastrophic thinking on the right is particularly significant today, is that one of the things, perhaps the most salient thing that radicalizes conservatism is the catastrophic lens itself. Conservatives, by temperament, do not like radical change. Conservatives, by temperament, want to slow things down. They want to preserve, they want to cherish existing institutions.
It’s only when conservatives, by temperament, start to look at the present and feel that catastrophe is nigh, that destruction is over the horizon. Perhaps it’s already happened, perhaps things have already gone too far. It’s only when conservatives by temperament look at current events through catastrophic lens do they start to reach for more radical [inaudible].
One of my concerns is that catastrophism itself is a radicalizing factor on the right. The other thing I wanted to mention briefly is that it is by no means only on the right. I think catastrophism is also found today on the left. To some extent that’s probably mimicking its success on the right, mimicking the success of right-wing media.
I thought I would read just one brief example of this. This is from just a few lines from Fintan O’Toole’s article in a recent edition of the New York Review of Books . I think it came out on March 25, so it’s very recent. The title of his piece is To Hell with Unity . It’s Fintan O’Toole’s To Hell with Unity . O’Toole writes, “Without an urgent anxiety about the near death of the American Republic…” He’s talking about Jan. 6 … “about the pandemic, about the terrors of climate change, about the insupportable nature of racial injustice, about the incompatibility of gross inequality and democracy, there can be no hope. The message that needs to be heard is not about what his administration would do… ” That is Biden’s administration, “Not about what Biden’s administration would like to do for Americans, but about what it must achieve, because the alternative is self-destruction.”
The thing I wanted to observe happening there is that the argument, the claim, “to hell with unity,” this isn’t a goal, we just need to just steamroll the other side, do what we can. If we have to pack the courts, pack the courts. If we have to change the filibuster rule, change the filibuster rule. Seize this moment, do what we can.
The argument, the narrative that’s underlying that claim is itself a leftist version of catastrophism. That said, I want to be clear, obviously there are problems, obviously some things can justly be described in terms of crisis. But one of the, I think, most salient obstacles to any kind of social trust in our society today, particularly good faith dialogue, problem solving is itself the catastrophic lens, particularly on the right, but also, I think, to some extent on the left. I think I’ll leave it at that. Thank you.
Darren Zook: Thank you so much, Eliah. The only problem I had was my weekend project was to read Ben Shapiro’s book, and you gave away the ending. I was waiting for the big surprise. Thank you for that. Thank you to all four panelists for all of your insights. What I’m going to do next is I’m going to work through the questions, and we have a few. If you have other questions, keep having them flow in, but I’ll take the ones we have now, and some of them are directed at certain panelists, others are for anyone to speak about. The first one I’m going to go to is actually directed Geeta.
I’m going to put these two questions together. I’ll turn to you first, Geeta, but any of the panelists who would like to add to this is perfectly fine. There’s two questions that come in. One is, is there a source listing for reliable news media? Which implies a question, of course, is how can people trust what they’re reading? Which is probably, is there a way for that to happen? Then someone’s pointing out that even good liberal media makes mistakes, referring to the 60 minutes error. How do respected, responsible journalists make these egregious errors? Geeta, could you speak to that first?
Geeta Anand: I can, and remind me if I miss a part of it, because there are two parts to it. In my view, what’s happened in the Trump era, is the tribalism of the media. For sure, it’s just really blatant when you watch Fox News , but even respectable news outlets producing fantastic news like the New York Times have somehow, in the coverage of Trump and in trying to wrap their arms around the story, they’re going to use language that turns off conservative readers.
Journalists make mistakes all the time, the best journalists make… separate from the tribalism. For one thing, there’s tribalism — that is a problem. Just trying to cover an administration that was engaged in the type of behavior that Trump was led journalists trying to do legitimate news coverage and rigorous news coverage to change the way they did it, and in some ways, for the better, trying to call a lie, a lie.
But the end result is tribalism, and to different degrees, almost all of the news media is engaged in it, to step back from it. That’s one answer to the question. But as for errors, some of the best journalists have made errors, and they need to correct themselves. Even the most careful journalists make errors. But remind me of the other part of the question-
Darren Zook: The question is actually, is there a list of reliable news sources?
Geeta Anand: A list of good sources. I’m not aware of one, but I think your local news daily. I’m not aware of one, but in my mind, and maybe it’s because I’m a journalist, just using common sense is a good start for figuring out which the reputable news outlets are, or which ones are believable. But I also think, we’re, as a journalism school, expanding to offer undergraduate journalism minor.
I think what would help is learning journalism for this digital age, understanding how to read a story and see if it’s well-sourced helps a lot. Are the sources credible? Who are they attributing the information to? Just learning how to question a story is useful.
Darren Zook: Excellent. Probably one of the next question I would like to ask if David, Sandra, or Eliah, do you want to add to that? I’ll take that as a no. Okay. The next set of questions. To Hell with Unity rang true for many people and we have some questions, going back to David’s comments about how can the left reengage with, say, progressive evangelicals, those that might be willing to have the talk.
On the one hand, we have some questions who are saying, let’s reengage with the other side, which may not be unity, but at least it’s reengagement, versus those who are saying… We have another comment about saying, reengagement isn’t what we should do. What we should do is just winning elections and try to, basically, let the other side go. It’s not worth the effort to try to reengage with the other side. I’ll direct this initially towards David, and then I’ll see what the other panelists have to say. David, would you like to respond to whether we should reengage with evangelicals and progressives and the evangelicals, or whether we should just push ahead without reaching out?
David Hollinger: I think the place to start in thinking about this is the recent experience of the Republican Congressman Kinzinger, from Illinois, one of the Republicans that voted for the impeachment resolutions in the House. Now, after he did that, 11 of his family members, and that’s significant, because we’re talking about the context of trust, the context of cultural continuity, the settings in which you can affirm or deny something, 11 members of his own family published a public letter attacking him for not being a Christian.
Now, what was the evidence for this? Because he was against Donald Trump. All these people wrote as evangelical Protestants, and they said that Donald Trump is a true Christian. How do they know this? They know it because Tucker Carlson said so, Sean Hannity said so. They list all of the Fox News commentators as the arbiters of who a true Christian is.
Now, if you have gaps like that within a family, and I think most of us listening and participating in this conversation probably know anecdotes about families we know that are divided in this way. Now, the reason we need to start with that, is because if we’re going to say, “Well, trust depends on community, on people that we’re connected with.”
If you go through to intimate families where people have experienced a lot of the same thing, and they really can’t speak with one another, that tells us how severe the problem is. Now, in that context, I think Bryan Stevenson and all these people that talk about reaching across, I think they’re right, I think we have to keep doing that. I’m not against that. I don’t think we should give up on it. But I think it’s really difficult because of a lot of the reasons that we’re talking about here, including the media stuff that data has been telling us about.
As for religious parties in this, it might be nice to hope that some of the more educated evangelical clergy can play a role. Now, that’s relevant because they have the trust of a lot of the people that are listening to all of these Tucker Carlson fantasies, all these people that are making things up, basically. Even the evangelical clergy have an avenue into that.
But one story after another that I read in the Times and the Post , indicates that these preachers are afraid to tell what they know is true. They’re afraid because their constituencies, their congregations, will throw them out. That’s the equivalent in the evangelical churches of all these senators and congressmen that are held hostage, as it’s been said, to their constituencies.
Now, what about the liberal Protestants? Well, all right, there’s Reverend Barber, a lot of action out there. There are liberal Catholic groups, and I say good luck to them. But these people have had generations of opportunities to convert fundamentalist and evangelicals to their side, and they have not done it. Now, they used to, but for the last 50 years, that has not happened. Now, it used to happen, that they could recruit from the Nazarenes and so forth, back in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.
But what happened in the late ’60s and ’70s, is that wealthy, anti-regulation billionaires begin to fund evangelical media. This then creates this bubble within which an evangelical does not have to become a Presbyterian in order to achieve upward social mobility. That’s why the Nazarenes became Presbyterians in the ’40s and ’50s, upward social mobility, but now you could become a prominent part of American life and still be in the Assembly of God. Makes a huge difference in terms of the recruitment to the liberal Protestants.
I say good luck with the liberal Protestants. But you’ll notice that Reverend Barber and Cornel West, all these people that are very prominent now among liberal Protestants, they’re not speaking biblical hermeneutics. They’re speaking misogyny and racism. They’re using political terms. Now, that’s really important because in the history of American religion, people talked about the Bible. But what has happened is that the liberals have basically conceded the Bible to the evangelicals.
A great example for this, we now have no prominent theologians of the liberal tradition that are prominent in American life. Who is the most respected, the most widely read liberal Protestant in the United States today? Not a preacher, not a seminary professor, not a biblical scholar, a novelist, Marilyn Robinson. Marilyn Robinson presents ecumenical Protestantism, liberal Protestantism, congregationalism, and so forth, as a museum. That’s why everybody can respect it. It’s a danger to no one.
Darren Zook: Thank you, David. I would like to actually field this to the other panelists, if you’d like to, especially Sandra, I know you mentioned a number of efforts, ongoing efforts going back 20, 30 years. Do you know of any that, rather than promoting unity, at least reengage with people of different opinions? Would you like to speak to that, Sandra?
Sandra Bass: Yeah, actually, I wanted to first of all, I really appreciate David’s comments in that context as so critical. I completely agree that… It reminds me of a book I read when I was in graduate school, and I think it’s Benedict Anderson, called Imagined Communities , and it relates to Geeta’s comments as well, which we now have a media… You used to have a media that was actually trying to create a narrative of a national identity that really, in some ways, didn’t exist. But that’s how we developed this sense of ourselves as a nation. Now, we have a media that’s doing the exact opposite, and lots of other forces that are actually centrifugal.
There’s no question, it’s a big boulder roll up the hill. What I would say is that I think unity is the wrong word. I would agree with Eliah on that, sorry. Am I pronouncing your name wrong? I don’t think it’s described our path, I don’t think it’s where we are today or even, necessarily realistic given the plurality of the country. But I do think that there are parallel tracks here.
There’s no question, we need to figure out how to win at the electoral game, because the stakes are too high not to do that. There are certain strategies to do that. I think what Stacey Abrams, and team and others and across the South are showing is that to some extent, you’ve got to mobilize your own and get them empowered into the polls. The strategies that we’ve used that have been more about reaching out to the so called undecided voter, are really not the most effective. We definitely need to do that.
But I think another parallel track is thinking about this relational work, because the relational work is seeding the ground for this longer term, hopefully, movement towards some understanding, if not belonging, as John Paul often talks about, which I appreciate that frame, at least some measure of comedy. So that we are at least not antagonizing each other.
But the other thing I wanted to mention, I’d love to hear what the other panelists think about this, is that, I spend a lot of time in movement spaces. What’s fascinating about movement spaces today is they are deeply spiritual, but they are not religious. Most of the movement spaces I go to, we have healing circles, and you have moments of reflection, and everything but referring to religion and God.
There’s a part of me that wonders, there’s obviously this trend towards people identifying themselves as spiritual and not religious, and that seems to be growing. I’m just wondering if perhaps the question is not so much the biblical based thinking of how we engage people, but is there something in that movement that we can draw upon? Maybe that’s what the Reverend Barbers and the Cornell Wests and the Jim Walshes and those folks who are liberal Christians are appealing to, rather than the more traditional ways of thinking about engaging Christians. But that’s just a question. I’d be curious to know what people think.
Darren Zook: All right. Excellent. Thank you, Sandra. I do want to give Geeta, if you would like to speak, for instance, to any relationship to the media and reengagement, if you have any comments on that. If not, it’s okay.
Geeta Anand: Not in particular, no.
Darren Zook: Okay. Just thought I’d ask. Eliah, how about… I think the question came from the point of view of left reengaging with the right. Is there anything on the right talking about reengaging with the left, Eliah?
Eliah Bures: Well, let me maybe bite into that from a slightly different angle. I wanted to say a few things about Fintan O’Toole’s To Hell with Unity thesis. In many ways, that’s a fantastic essay. I think the picture he paints of the decline, or the rightward shift of American conservatism over the last generation is broadly accurate. But my concern about the attitude, the mood of To Hell with Unity , which I don’t doubt captures the mood of many people on the left today.
But my reservations about it, I think, could be split into two camps. One would be philosophical. As somebody, myself, who’s broadly on the left, I frankly don’t want the left to be a mirror image of the right. I would rather the left was a bastion of sobriety and fact-based reasoning and good things like that, and not trying to reproduce the fear-mongering echo chambers of the right, however successful those have been, and they’ve been tremendously successful.
I would say that, and I would also say that I think it’s important that our means are always consistent with our ends. If we believe in social trust and civil discourse as ends, then we need to employ means that are consistent with those. You make the decision to start steamrolling your opponents and packing courts and things like that. It’s probably not consistent with the end you claim to want, and it’s also not clear to me, what are the natural barriers to that?
Once you decide to manipulate and do whatever you can, basically, to reconfigure institutions, where does that impulse come to a natural end? I don’t know. It just gives me pause. It makes me worried. But I also think tactically, the Hell with Unity mood might be misguided. I’ll try to give two examples of that. One would be, maybe Joe Manchin, the West Virginia senator, I think, just yesterday in the Washington Post , published an oped, which he called for unity and for… Or not unity, he called for bipartisanship, and he called for the Biden administration to not basically do this kind of steamrolling, push through legislation, do whatever we can now, get as much as we can now.
He called for a sincere effort of bipartisanship. One tactical reason to not embrace the Hell with Unity call would simply be to not alienate people like Joe Manchin, who, frankly, has a tremendous amount of power now, as a moderate, Democratic senator.
The other tactical dimension would perhaps be, a sincere, ongoing effort of bipartisanship could fracture the GOP at this moment, because there are people who would like to be rid of Trumpism, who would like to see that the hole that it has on their party diminished. There may actually be some refugees, I think, from the GOP camp. I wonder, what would it look like if we could get three or four of the moderate GOP senators to defect, essentially? The Murkowskis and the Olympia Snowes and so forth.
I think that… I don’t know how, I can’t attach numbers to that as a likelihood. But I think that, it’s also likely that you could induce some fracturing in the GOP camp through a sincere ongoing effort of bipartisanship.
Darren Zook: All right, thank you for your insights, Eliah. I do want to say we’re at 11:29 a.m. Before we wrap things up, I want to give my absolute sincere thanks to David, to Geeta, to Sandra, to Eliah for your time here. I know that especially David and Geeta have to leave right at 11:30 a.m., so I want to make sure I get in my sincere thanks and my electronic applause in front of a screen to all of you for sharing your insights. We have so much to talk about, still to go. We might roll over a few minutes here because I know that Susan wants to have a few final comments for our town hall. But again, before our panelists leave, just want to say thanks to all of you for your insights. With that, I’ll turn it over to Susan Hoffman, who might be muted.
Susan Hoffman: I am. I too, want to thank everybody for today’s conversation and see it very much as a beginning of a conversation that we can continue at OLLI in a variety of ways. I think that Sandra was posing some interesting questions, that I think need further investigation. All of the panelists provided paths forward on things that we might do. Geeta, your idea of supporting local media, I know in my neighborhood in San Francisco, its Mission Local , that was also started through the Graduate School of Journalism.
I loved hearing about Richmond Confidential . I think that, in the history that David has talked about around the evangelicals, you can see in the chat, there’s been a lot of questions about that. We will find some way to help people move these questions forward. We did, last summer, we did a thing called OLLI Engages, which was an opportunity for OLLI members to come together to talk about what actions they could take and how they could get involved. We will interest members who want to take some lead, and all of that.
The last thing I want to do is just thank you, Darren, for all of the work and thought you’ve put into this, and just say to the members who are here on this town hall meeting, this week, you’re going to receive an email from OLLI at Berkeley, and it will contain a link to our annual member survey. I’m going to urge you strongly, to take the 10 minutes to fill it out.
In addition to all the questions that we ask about programs, and some very particular questions around how these Friday events have been important to you, the town hall meetings, the words over time, the speaker series, “America’s Unfinished Work,” all of that. But even more important around how you evaluate these programs. We want to learn from you, what you are anticipating as a learner, where you think you might be in the fall, and next year. Do you want to return to the classroom? Do you see yourself as a Zoomer, rather than a roomer? Or do you see yourself as a hybrid? This is really important information for us as we move the program forward.
Please take a look at responding to that link. Thank you all for your involvement. Thank you today’s panelists, Darren, thank you.
[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions ]
Outro: You’ve been listening to Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can subscribe on Acast, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Also, check out another podcast of ours, Berkeley Voices, about the people who make UC Berkeley the creative, quirky, world-changing place that it is. You can find all of our podcast episodes with transcripts and photos on Berkeley News at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.