December 12, 2018

Panel Discusses Faith, Truth in Leadership of Truthiness

Slate editor Dahlia Lithwick

The concept of fake news started in part as a way to help people convey conspiratorial stories, such as Hillary Clinton running a child sex slave ring out of a pizzeria.

That’s how Slate Senior Editor Dahlia Lithwick introduced her take on the etymology of fake news during a recent symposium titled, “These Truths We Hold: Judaism in an Age of Truthiness.”

Speaking at a three-day symposium earlier this month at Stephen Wise Temple hosted by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), Lithwick said over the past two years, “Donald Trump very adeptly co-opted those two words to mean any news critical of him.” 

“If you follow the sort of etymology of this fake news, it starts with the ‘good people’ at Infowars, it is pushed out by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary — who, ostensibly, to be clear, works for the government, works for us — [and] it is immediately pulled up by [internet] bots,” she said.

Lithwick talked about the Nov.  7 White House press conference, after which CNN correspondent Jim Acosta had his press credentials revoked by the Trump administration as Sanders released a video that had been edited to depict Acosta “karate chopping” a White House intern’s arm. 

The sequence of events was illustrative of everything wrong about Trump’s relationship with truth, Lithwick said. “There were millions of Americans who agreed that what we all saw, what happened in real time in front of our eyes, did not happen,” she said. “There is a reason that [George] Orwell quote, about believing something that is not true as a cornerstone of authoritarianism, has been affixed to this. The White House claimed something utterly different than what we saw with our eyes.”

In her nearly 30-minute indictment of the president, Lithwick also attributed blame to journalists for creating confusion over real and fictitious reporting, specifically the “conflation of news and opinion, and that’s been going on for years,” and a revenue model that “rewards clicks and drama, and rewards grandstanding and showboating” over quality journalism.

“Truth cannot be determined first and foremost only by those in power.”

— Dahlia Lithwick

She said people are responsible for holding their leaders accountable. “Truth cannot be determined first and foremost only by those in power,” she said.

Also appearing at the event, Rabbi Rachel Adler, the David Ellenson professor of modern Jewish thought at HUC-JIR, said stories, more than truth, have the capacity to move people. She cited the news coverage of the Oct. 27 Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. The most effective reporting featured the personal stories of the victims, Adler said during a presentation titled, “The Torah, Our Chavruta: Re/Constructing Truth in Sacred Text.” 

Christine Hayes, the Weis professor of religious studies in classical Judaica at Yale University, delivered a talk titled, “The ‘Truth’ About Torah.” She said people should look to Torah for more than proscriptive text on how to lead their lives. “There is more to Torah than some static, immutable truth,” she said.

Benjamin Sommer, a professor of Bible studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary, built on Hayes’ sentiment. During his talk, “Can the Torah Still Be a Source of Truth?” he said the Bible, with its many self-contradictions, shows that even work considered to be divine truth presents more than one the truth. 

Attendees included Sarah Benor, professor of contemporary Jewish studies at HUC-JIR. During a break, Benor said she was impressed with Sommer’s characterization of the Torah as “proto-rabbinic literature,” a text containing a multitude of voices, as opposed to one absolute truth. It “blew my mind,” she said.

The President of Stranger Things

President Donald Trump on Sept. 7. Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

A full moon ambushed me the other morning.

It was pasted on the sky like a crafts project, too flat and too burnt orange, and too close to Beverly and La Brea, to be real.

I wasn’t, How beautiful! I was, How strange.

How strange there’s a four-and-a-half billion-year-old rock rotating around me; how strange that this disc rising from Blick Art’s roof gets its crayoned glow from nuclear fusion 93 million miles away; how strange that its whole Juney moony existence is indifferent to, and makes irrelevant, the satellite radio voices in my car channeling my anxieties about Donald Trump firing special counsel Robert Mueller, Trump goading himself into nuking North Korea, Trump giving Vladimir Putin a pass on gaming the election Trump won.

I don’t usually live on cable news time and in geologic time at the same time.  When I drive to Trader Joe’s, the Big Bang typically gets no attention from me. But the other morning I was blown away by the strangeness of being simultaneously in Newton’s solar system, where space is space and time is time; in Einstein’s universe, where everything is spacetime, and it’s warped; and in the TJ parking lot, where a ridiculously narrow space takes forever to find.

“Your happiness,” behavioral scientist Paul Dolan writes in “Happiness by Design,” “is determined by how you allocate your attention…. If you are not as happy as you could be, then you must be misallocating your attention.”

If I allocated more attention to the sound of rain than to the sound of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, I’m sure I’d be happier. But I don’t allocate my attention to her. She steals it. Like her boss, she’s contemptuous of a free press, and she gets away with it. I have to watch – it’s disaster porn, and its victim is American democracy.

I’m not the only boss of my attention. I run the conscious, intentional executive function of my brain, but attention is involuntary, too, vulnerable to hijacking and noticing whatever it wants, whether our judgment intends it or not.

“We’re hooked on the dopamine squirts we get from likes, shares and comments.”

Daniel Kahneman, the behavioral psychologist who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics, describes two kinds of thinking, fast and slow. System 1 is fast, automatic, emotional, subconscious. System 2 is slow, effortful, logical, conscious.

System 2 behaves as though our free will allocates our attention, but actually it’s System 1, bombarded by inputs, that impulsively calls the shots and gets System 2 to reverse-engineer reasons for what we notice.

What pitches does System 1 fall for? Danger, sex, play, novelty and stories are especially good at grabbing attention. They’re what entertainment uses, and news, politics, commerce and culture, too. Social media platforms are all that in one, and we gladly carry them around on our phones. They captivate us; we’re their attention slaves. It’s not our fault if we Instagram a total eclipse or live-tweet a string quartet: We’re hooked on the dopamine squirts we get from likes, shares and comments. #MozartIsDaBomb

Industries are built on this. When we practice meditation and mindfulness, the distractedness of our monkey minds isn’t attributable to human nature alone; it’s also a casualty of the battle to sell our eyeballs and data to advertisers.  We may want to infuse our days with reverence and gratitude, but some random commercial sighting – a picture of a beautiful body, beach or burger – can kidnap our attention and brainwash us with a yearning we can slake solely by spending money.

Paying attention to Trump is inevitable. Well before he became a candidate, he was an accomplished tale-teller, which is catnip for System 1. His tallest tale is the story of himself. He has one subject, Trump, and one object, our attention. Now that our Little Caesar bestrides the world like a colossus, we may persuade ourselves that being rapt by his awfulness is civic vigilance, not rubbernecking at the apocalypse. But that’s just System 2 rationalizing the prurience of System 1.

I love a good media detox, and there are times I’ve been able to unplug for a week. But day-to-day, Trump’s mastery of the horror genre makes getting my attention a cheap date.

I can’t stop Trump from stealing my attention, but I can try to switch where it takes me. Not, How scary. No — I want that burnt orange face to make me mindful of my Crayola moon. How strange.


Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor at the USC Annenberg School for
Communication and Journalism. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com

Trump ‘looks forward’ to signing resolution condemning white supremacists

President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 7. Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

President Donald Trump will “absolutely” sign a congressional resolution that “rejects white nationalism, white supremacy and neo-Nazism as hateful,” his spokeswoman said.

“He looks forward to doing so as soon as he receives it,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday during a briefing with reporters.

With bipartisan majorities, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed resolutions this week in the aftermath of the far-right rally in Charlottesville last month that reject “white nationalism, white supremacy and neo-Nazism as hateful expressions of intolerance that are contradictory to the values that define the people of the United States.”

The resolutions also urge the president and his administration “to speak out against hate groups that espouse racism, extremism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and white supremacy, and use all resources available to the president and the president’s Cabinet to address the growing prevalence of those hate groups in the United States.”

In an unusual move, the sponsors exercised a mechanism that requires the president’s signature on the resolution even though it is nonbinding and written to reflect the sense of Congress. The aim was to address concerns that Trump had equivocated following clashes last month between white supremacists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, that included a deadly attack on a counterprotester carried out by an alleged white supremacist. Sponsors wanted Trump’s commitment to the idea of condemning white supremacists.

The resolution assiduously avoids blaming any other parties for the violence. The victim, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, is named and honored in the resolution.