The Rise and Fall of the “Freest Little City in Texas”

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(“This article from the Texas Observer was too good NOT to share.” – Mike)

How a libertarian experiment in city government fell apart over taxes, debt and some very angry people.

The abandoned cop cars sat in Trina Reyes’ yard for eight months. She wanted them gone, but there were no police to come get them. Last September, the police department in Von Ormy — a town of 1,300 people just southwest of San Antonio — lost its accreditation after it failed to meet basic standards. Reyes was mayor at the time, so the three patrol cars, as well as the squad’s police radios and its computers, ended up at her home. It was just another low point in a two-year saga that she now counts as one of the most difficult experiences of her life.

“This is one of the worst things I’ve ever done,” she said of being mayor. “I’ve never dealt with such angry people. I’m washing my hands of everything. … I’m going to travel. I’m going as far away from Von Ormy as I can.”

For the last few years, Von Ormy has been in near-constant turmoil over basic issues of governance: what form of municipal government to adopt, whether to tax its residents, and how to pay for services such as sewer, police, firefighters and animal control. Along the way, three City Council members were arrested for allegedly violating the Open Meetings Act, and the volunteer fire department collapsed for lack of funds. Nearly everyone in town has an opinion on who’s to blame. But it’s probably safe to say that the vision of the city’s founder, a libertarian lawyer whose family traces its roots in Von Ormy back six generations, has curdled into something that is part comedy, part tragedy.

In 2006, fearing annexation by rapidly encroaching San Antonio, some in Von Ormy proposed incorporating as a town. But in government-averse rural Texas, incorporation can be a hard sell. Unincorporated areas are governed mainly by counties, which have few rules about what you can do on private property and tend to only lightly tax. There’s no going back from what municipal government brings: taxes, ordinances, elections and tedious city council meetings. Still, the fear of being absorbed by San Antonio — with its big-city taxes and regulations — was too much for most Von Ormians.

Enter Art Martinez de Vara. At the time, Martinez de Vara was an ambitious third-year law student at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, a local boy with a penchant for Texas history and right-wing politics.

Martinez de Vara suggested a compromise of sorts. Von Ormy could become a “liberty city” — a stripped-down, low-tax, low-government version of municipal government that’s currently en vogue among the tea party in Texas.

Initially, the city would impose property and sales taxes, but the property tax would ratchet down to zero over time. The business-friendly environment would draw new economic activity to Von Ormy, and eventually the town would cruise along on sales taxes alone.

There would be no charge for building permits, which Martinez de Vara said would be hand-delivered by city staff. The nanny state would be kept at bay, too. Want to shoot off fireworks? Blast away. Want to smoke in a bar? Light up. Teens wandering around at night? No curfew, no problem.

Martinez de Vara and his mother, Sally Martinez, along with other prominent residents, started the Commission to Incorporate Von Ormy. He gave Von Ormy a motto: “The Freest Little City in Texas.”

Folks in Von Ormy liked what they heard and in May 2008 voted to incorporate. Martinez de Vara was elected mayor that November.

In a 2015 presentation he gave at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, Martinez de Vara said that a group of people with no political experience took it upon themselves to do everything a large city like San Antonio does but at a lower cost. He touted Von Ormy’s ability to provide animal control services, a 20-officer police department — a mix of paid officers and volunteers — and an online city hall.

“We were blessed with this unique opportunity to experiment with democracy,” he said.

Today, there is no city animal control program and stray dogs roam the streets. The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office patrols the town instead of city police, and City Hall resides in a mobile home with one full-time staffer — though that’s a step up from the dive bar where City Council met until the owner bounced them out. If you go to the city’s website, you’ll be informed that it’s still under construction.

If Von Ormy is a libertarian experiment with democracy, it’s one that hasn’t turned out as expected.

JEN REEL

Former Von Ormy mayor Trina Reyes at her home in April. Several abandoned police cars were in her yard for eight months.

The crisis of government in Von Ormy doesn’t present itself at first glance. The town is located on I-35 just south of the Medina River, where San Antonio’s impressive sprawl gives way to the scrub brush of South Texas. There’s a post office, of course, plus some gas stations, a diner, a trailer home dealer and the MGM Cabaret strip club. A giant oak tree in town is believed by some local historians, including Martinez de Vara, to have been the encampment for Santa Anna before he laid siege to the Alamo.

Reyes lives near I-35 in a distinct two-story blue house. A retired buyer for a beauty supply company, she moved from San Antonio to Von Ormy in 1982. When Martinez de Vara stepped down as mayor in 2015, he tapped Reyes to run. She had been an early supporter of the liberty city idea. But when I visited her this spring, she was counting down the days till her term expired in May.

From the beginning, she said, the town had been divided.

“Some really liked it,” Reyes said. “They liked the possibility of getting street lights, sewage, better roads and all of the stuff that comes with incorporating. … There was quite a bit promised and people bought into it, including myself.”

Others thought that the process would lead to unnecessary fights and power grabs.

“A lot of people that did not want to incorporate were saying that once you become a political entity you start with the corruption, the infighting and all of the stuff that comes with having public figures,” she said. “They said it was going to divide the city, which it did. The majority of the people that spoke up against [incorporating] were right then about what’s happening now.”

As mayor, Martinez de Vara’s first priority was to lure chain stores with the town’s low-tax, low-regulation branding. But there was a problem: Von Ormy lacked a sewer system and it would be expensive to connect to San Antonio’s main wastewater system. The San Antonio Water System, which services most of Bexar County, told town officials that the connection would cost $4 million to $5 million.

According to Reyes, City Administrator James Massey recommended floating a bond, standard practice for most cities. But Martinez de Vara rejected the recommendation. Liberty cities aren’t supposed to take on debt, after all. (Martinez de Vara didn’t respond to numerous requests for comment.)

Reyes said most people in Von Ormy agreed with Martinez de Vara’s position but that it put the town in a bind. “You want to be a liberty city? No taxes,” she said. “We could only afford to put in $500,000, if that, but where would we get the rest from?”
The sewer system was never installed, and the town still relies on septic.

The lack of a centralized wastewater system made it more difficult to recruit businesses. But the oil boom in the Eagle Ford Shale — the vast shale play that stretches from Laredo into East Texas — helped juice the businesses along the I-35 strip in Von Ormy. Martinez de Vara and the City Council stuck to the plan of ratcheting the property tax rate down every year. In 2009, the rate stood at a modest 39 cents per $100 of value — less than neighboring San Antonio or Somerset, a small town to the south. By 2014, they’d cut it to 25.5 cents — enough to generate $79,000 in revenue. Meanwhile, the sales tax brought in about $215,000 that year.

Martinez de Vara promised that the property tax would be eliminated altogether by 2015, the bold step he’d envisioned at the town’s inception.

“Many of our residents are on fixed incomes and property taxation is the single greatest threat to continued home ownership and the ability to pass the fruits of a lifetime of work onto the next generation,” he told the San Antonio Express-News in 2014.

JEN REEL

Von Ormy no longer has a city property tax and instead relies on sales taxes from businesses such as the Route 35 Diner.

But two things happened around this time: First, the bottom fell out of the oil economy. With oil prices in free-fall in 2014 and 2015, the drilling rigs in the Eagle Ford Shale started packing up, as did many of the workers, trucks and ancillary oil field services.

Second, some were beginning to sour on the liberty city model. On the five-member City Council, three council members — Jacqueline Goede, Verna Hernandez and Carmina Aguilar — had banded together in a bloc that was increasingly at odds with Martinez de Vara and the two other council members, one of whom was Sally Martinez. The most explosive issue was property taxes. The three women thought it was foolish to eliminate property taxes altogether. Sales taxes rise and fall with the economy, and few cities rely on them alone.

“As new as we are and as small as we are, to grow we need those taxes,” Goede told the Express-News. “We need them desperately.”

What ensued was a confusing series of boycotted meetings, obscure loopholes and eventually a possibly illegal hearing that landed the three women briefly in jail. In September 2014, Martinez de Vara had formally proposed zeroing out the property tax, but Goede, Hernandez and Aguilar voted it down 3-2 and, at least for five days, kept the property tax in place. However, to formally ratify the rate, per state law, at least four council members needed to hold another meeting to vote, but Sally Martinez and Debra Ivy refused to show up to any hearing with ratification on the agenda. The result: Martinez de Vara got his way and the property tax rate was eliminated.

Frustrated, Goede, Hernandez and Aguilar took a radical, and possibly illegal, step: They formed a kind of brief shadow government, holding their own City Council hearing at the Von Ormy fire station without Martinez de Vara and the two other council members. At the hearing, they elected Goede mayor pro tem, established a property tax and fired the head of the police department.

Martinez de Vara caught wind of the meeting and got a judge to nullify the actions taken in it. Soon, the Texas Rangers opened a criminal investigation into possible violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act, resulting in misdemeanor charges. In May 2015, the three council members turned themselves in to the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office. Though the charges were eventually dropped and the women continued serving on City Council, the incident only inflamed tensions in the community.

“After that, there was a lack of authority, lack of direction and a lack of enthusiasm,” said Michael Suarez, the former animal control worker for the city and a Martinez de Vara supporter. “Everyone started acting like children and nothing got done.”

Even as Von Ormy descended into chaos, Martinez de Vara’s own profile had been rising. Folks from around the state had started calling him with questions about how to form a liberty city. Martinez de Vara found himself with a niche law practice. He says he has helped four or five Texas towns incorporate as liberty cities, about half the state total in the last decade.

The GOP had also taken notice. In 2011 and 2012, Martinez de Vara served as chief of staff to one-term Representative John Garza, a San Antonio Republican. Then, in 2014, Senator Konni Burton, a libertarian-leaning Republican from Fort Worth, brought him on as chief of staff. That session, Burton introduced Senate Bill 710, which would codify the liberty city model as an official form of municipal government, with restrictions on regulations, debt and the implementation of taxes. The bill died in committee.

Today, he’s the assistant general counsel for the Texas Republican Party and the city attorney for Kingsbury, a liberty city near Seguin in Guadalupe County.

Art Martinez de Vara was the architect of Von Ormy’s incorporation as a liberty city.  KIN MAN HUI / SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS

In May 2015, Martinez de Vara stepped down as mayor — but not before asking Reyes, a member of the City Council first elected in 2013, to run as his replacement. She and Martinez de Vara agreed on the top priority: getting the three women off the council.

“It got to the point that the city was spending $20,000 to $30,000 a month in legal fees,” she said. “All three of them would pick up the phone and ask the same question and we’d get charged for all of them.”

Despite pressing city business, council meetings often devolved into chaos. For example, at a September 2015 meeting, Reyes angrily told Goede and Hernandez they were “speaking out of turn” and threatened to call the police if they kept talking. But when Hernandez persisted, Reyes ordered the police chief, who was present at the meeting, to escort Hernandez outside. Hernandez was arrested and booked into jail for disrupting a meeting, a misdemeanor. But that didn’t quiet Hernandez or her supporters.

One day, Reyes said, she got a call from Martinez de Vara.

“He told me that the only way that we were going to get rid of those women is to change to a commissioner-style government,” she said. “And at that point, I would have done anything to get rid of those three women. They were nothing but trouble.”

Martinez de Vara recommended that Von Ormy switch from what’s known as a Type A municipality to a Type C. Instead of the usual five council members and a mayor, Type C cities have two commissioners and a mayor. According to the Texas Municipal League, only 27 of the 1,200 municipalities in Texas are set up this way. In November 2015, voters narrowly approved the change, with 129 in favor and 115 against. The new commission started holding meetings the next month.

When I visited Reyes in Von Ormy in March, she was in despair about the arrangement. Halving the council from six to three elected officials hadn’t brought unity.

She had all but stopped speaking to the two commissioners — longtime City Council member Sally Martinez and Alex Quintanilla, another stalwart in the city government. Reyes simply stopped showing up for council meetings in early 2017, accusing Martinez and Quintanilla of ganging up on her.

In September, Martinez and Quintanilla voted to reclassify the mayor’s office as a conference room and mandated that Reyes pay for the desk’s relocation. “They said it was too big and that I had to take it home,” she said. “Now I work from home.”

She was also worried about violating the Open Meetings Act again, which is easy to do when there are only three people in charge of the city and two constitutes a quorum.

“If two of us talk on the phone, I think that would be a violation,” she said. “We’ve just stopped speaking to each other. And Alex lives across the alley from me. It’s really sad.”

She points to a February meeting between county officials and rural leaders in southern Bexar County as evidence of the precariousness of their situation.

I went to a forum with the county to talk about potential Community Development Block Grant funds in nearby Somerset, and I didn’t realize until I put my glasses on that Sally and Alex were there,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, we’re in trouble again.’”

In September 2016, Von Ormy made headlines when its police department was forced to shut down. For nearly a year, Reyes and the two city commissioners had been locked in a power struggle over who should be the police chief. When Reyes took over as mayor, she moved to sack Police Chief Greg Reyes (no relation), who she and others accused of harassing council members and city staff and lying about his law enforcement background. (According to a report written by a private investigator tapped by Mayor Reyes, the police chief had lied on his résumé about obtaining a degree from San Antonio College and being assigned to the Frio County Sheriff’s Department Narcotics Task Force, which turned out not to exist.)

Mayor Reyes fired Chief Reyes and convinced the City Council to hire a man named Pedro Rosario. The new police chief claimed to find some serious problems left behind by his predecessor.

“The evidence room had very little to no control measures,” he told me in an April interview. “It was literally an 18-wheel trailer that was unsecured. There was no cataloging. I found unmarked boxes filled with everything from weapons to narcotics … and anybody could walk in, and they did. A lot of the City Council members would just walk in and want to see a file or just grab things.” (Greg Reyes did not respond to numerous requests for comment.)

Former police chief Pedro Rosario claims the evidence room, housed in this tractor trailer, was found unsecured and held unmarked boxes filled with weapons and narcotics.  JEN REEL

Then in the summer of 2016, the two commissioners, Martinez and Quintanilla, voted to fire Rosario and rehire Greg Reyes. But Mayor Reyes claimed the hiring was illegal and refused to recognize Reyes as police chief.

Then in September, the dispute was finally brought to an end when Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau wrote a letter to Mayor Reyes. Pamerleau said her department would no longer provide dispatch services because there was simply “too much instability” in the department. Without dispatch services, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement quickly pulled the Von Ormy PD’s accreditation.

The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office has been patrolling the town ever since. The three patrol cars Von Ormy had received as a donation from Bexar County ended up in Reyes’ yard. After her term ended in May, they were moved in front of City Hall.

Jake Galvan, a retired mechanic, says that the police department was an embarrassment to the town and the source of rumors about misconduct and other illegal behavior.

“They didn’t hire anybody that’s a veteran,” he said. “They just hired a bunch of rookies with no experience.”

In Galvan’s view, the liberty city experiment has gone all wrong.

“This ain’t going well at all,” he said. “We’ve got a bunch of empty buildings, a lot of [federal] grant money spent, and for what? We have a fire station that nobody wants to operate and a police station with no police. Where did all that money go?”

In early May, Von Ormy elected a new mayor: Sally Martinez, the only person who has served on the council since the beginning.

“We are in the process of trying to bring back our police department,” she told me in a brief April interview. “We just want to move forward and improve the city however we can.”

David Farr, her challenger, is a mechanic who had started to attend meetings over the past year and wanted to change what he saw as stalled progress and nepotism.

“The only way to make Von Ormy sustainable is to get more businesses out here,” he said.

“If things don’t change, we’re going to be in trouble in, I’d say, two years. We’ll have to start borrowing to get the roads fixed.”

He pins the town’s woes on Martinez de Vara’s crusade to establish other liberty cities, a common complaint heard in Von Ormy.

“I’ll give him credit, he’s the one who got the city going,” he said. “But then, all of a sudden, he drops out. He’s up in Austin. He’s too busy.”

Reyes thinks the liberty city experiment has failed. With increasing expenses, a population resistant to any taxes, and economic development dead in the water, she thinks the town is only a few years away from a fiscal crisis, when the commission will have to decide whether to take on debt.

“We’re halfway there,” she said. “Without ad valorem taxes, we’ll be done in three to five years. If we can’t attract more businesses here and provide the infrastructure, then I think we’re done.”

But others are protective of Martinez de Vara’s vision and blame Reyes for the dysfunction.

Michael Suarez resigned from his position at the city’s animal shelter after City Council voted to suspend its animal control program.  JEN REEL

Michael Suarez, the former animal control worker, was born and raised in Von Ormy. He says that Martinez de Vara was a capable leader who simply saw an opportunity to climb the political ladder.

“Trina just wanted the power, but she didn’t know anything,” Suarez said. “All she wanted to do was just scream about how she’s in charge and order people around. She would scream at people, and that’s not how you do things.”

Suarez was one of the biggest supporters of incorporation, spending his free time block-walking to convince his neighbors that it was the right thing to do.

His wife, Amy, was on the City Council from 2011 to 2013 and was an ally of Martinez de Vara’s.

“I think we’re just young,” she said. “We’ve reached our temper tantrum stage and we just need to get past it. But a lot of the people here don’t care. They want to be left alone, but if something’s not done soon then San Antonio’s going to annex us. Then we’ll have to pay the taxes that Von Ormy was established to get out of in the first place.”

Michael says that the election was an opportunity for things to settle down and live up to the trust given to them by county officials, but that there will be some hard work in getting the town they want back.

“We worked so hard to get this far,” he said. “But it’s kind of turned into George Orwell’s Animal Farm. We’re all equal, but some of us are more equal than others. There’s nobody competent enough to lead this city and we sure as hell can’t attract anybody to come and fix us. We have to do this ourselves.”

(Illustration by Matt Johnstone)

This article appears in the August 2017 issue of the Texas Observer. Read more from the issue or become a member now to see our reporting before it’s published online.

James McCandless is a freelance writer in San Antonio.

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3 Ways You Can Drive Conservatives Insane: Debunking Right Wing Lies

July 28, 2014 | Filed under: Debunking Right Wing Lies,RIght-Wing Myths |Originally Posted by: Samuel Warde

 

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One of the surest ways or enraging conservatives is through debunking right wing lies, particular the ones most commonly seen on Facebook, Twitter and beyond. Here is this weeks handy list of right wing lies we have taken the time to correct.


Be sure to sprinkle these around and let us know some other great lies you want us to debunk in our next Debunking Right Wing Lies segment.

1. The United States is not a “Christian Nation” founded upon “Christian Principles”.

One need look no further than to Thomas Jefferson to understand the false nature of this claim.

Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. “

Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782

And one cannot forget that Jefferson strongly advocated the separation of church and state:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State. “

Thomas Jefferson, letter to Danbury Baptist Association, CT., Jan. 1, 1802

Another founder, John Adams, was a Congregationalist who later became a Unitarian. However, he deliberately avoided creed-based dogmatic religion.

The Treaty of Tripoli, introduced to the Senate by John Adams and ratified by unanimous decree, was signed by Adams in 1797 and includes the following passage for any doubters out there:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

 The Treaty of Tripoli, signed Nov. 4, 1796, effective June. 10, 1797

2. The Affordable Care Act is Working

Rolling Stone puts it best, reporting:

President Obama’s centrist healthcare bill was informed by federalism (delegating power to the states) and proven technocratic reforms (like a board to help doctors discern which treatments would be most cost-effective). Republicans, undeterred, decried it as Soviet-style communism based on “death panels” – never mind the fact that the old system, which rationed care based on income, is the one that left tens of thousands of uninsured people to die.

From the beginning, Republicans have predicted disastrous consequences or Obamacare, none of which came true. They predicted that the ACA would add to the deficit; in fact, it will reduce the deficit. They claimed the exchanges would fail to attract the uninsured; they met their targets. They said only old people would sign up; the young came out in the same rates as in Massachusetts. They predicted the ACA would drive up healthcare costs; in fact it is likely holding cost inflation down, although it’s still hard to discern how much of the slowdown was due to the recession. In total, the ACA will ensure that 26 million people have insurance in 2024 who would have been uninsured otherwise.

It’s worth noting that every time the CBO estimates how much Obamacare will cost, the number gets lower. Odd how we’ve never heard Republicans say that.

3. Ronald Reagan Supported Gun Control

I do not believe in taking away the right of the citizen for sporting, for hunting and so forth, or for home defense. But I do believe that an AK-47, a machine gun, is not a sporting weapon or needed for defense of a home.”

~Ronald Reagan, at his birthday celebration in 1989.

As governor of California, Ronald Reagan signed the Mulford Act, which prohibited the carrying of firearms on your person, in your vehicle, and in any public place or on the street, and he also signed off on a 15-day waiting period for firearm purchases. “There’s no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons,” Reagan said at the time, according to Salon.com.

In 1986 as president, he signed into law the Firearm Owners Protection Act, which “banned ownership of any fully automatic rifles that were not already registered on the day the law was signed.”

After leaving the presidency, he supported the passage of the Brady bill that established by federal law a nationwide, uniform standard of a 7-day waiting period for the purchase of handguns to enable background checks on prospective buyers.

In 1991 Reagan wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times stating his support for the Brady Bill and noted that if the Brady Bill had been in effect earlier, he never would have been shot. He also urged then President H.W. Bush to drop his opposition to the bill and lobbied other members of Congress to support the bill.

In 1994 Reagan wrote to Congress urging them to listen to the American public and to the law enforcement community and support a ban on the further manufacture of military-style assault weapons.

Rush, Canadian Prog – eh?

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I dig the steampunk stage design they have been rocking!

When I was a kid I HATED Rush.

Aside from a few hits, I flatly despised them.

Geddy Lee’s high-pitched singing voice was so annoying and their albums in the 1980’s were so over-saturated with synthesizers.

I am not a big fan of synths made in the 1980’s.

I prefer synths made in the 1960’s-1970’s.

They just had more warmth and bottom end to them.

The band were vocal supporters of that cunt Ayn Rand.

Everything about them was just so pompous and yuppiefied, it seemed.

But, after getting into groups like Primus and Ruins, I went back and gave them another chance.

I decided that I kinda liked them in some ways, but still disliked them in others.

Even when I hated Rush, I respected their musicianship.

They could write complex music and they could really play.

It was Geddy’s voice that grated on my nerves.

But, after awhile, after listening to Les Claypool’s singing it didn’t seem so bad after all.

In fact, Geddy’s voice has deepened with age over the years, making it a little more to my liking.

They have also distanced themselves from Ayn Rand’s bullshit “philosophy” of objectivism, over time.

So, that is a relief.

They also seem to have grown a sense of humor with age.

And, in contrast with their former headlining tourmate Ted Nugent, they are actually nice guys.

So, I guess, people can change and grow on you.

Maybe there is hope for us after all.

14 Propaganda Techniques Fox "News" Uses to Brainwash Americans

14 Propaganda Techniques Fox “News” Uses to Brainwash Americans
Saturday 2 July 2011
by: Dr. Cynthia Boaz, Truthout | News Analysis

There is nothing more sacred to the maintenance of democracy than a free press. Access to comprehensive, accurate and quality information is essential to the manifestation of Socratic citizenship – the society characterized by a civically engaged, well-informed and socially invested populace. Thus, to the degree that access to quality information is willfully or unintentionally obstructed, democracy itself is degraded.

It is ironic that in the era of 24-hour cable news networks and “reality” programming, the news-to-fluff ratio and overall veracity of information has declined precipitously. Take the fact Americans now spend on average about 50 hours a week using various forms of media, while at the same time cultural literacy levels hover just above the gutter. Not only does mainstream media now tolerate gross misrepresentations of fact and history by public figures (highlighted most recently by Sarah Palin’s ludicrous depiction of Paul Revere’s ride), but many media actually legitimize these displays. Pause for a moment and ask yourself what it means that the world’s largest, most profitable and most popular news channel passes off as fact every whim, impulse and outrageously incompetent analysis of its so-called reporters. How did we get here? Take the enormous amount of misinformation that is taken for truth by Fox audiences: the belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and that he was in on 9/11, the belief that climate change isn’t real and/or man-made, the belief that Barack Obama is Muslim and wasn’t born in the United States, the insistence that all Arabs are Muslim and all Muslims are terrorists, the inexplicable perceptions that immigrants are both too lazy to work and are about to steal your job. All of these claims are demonstrably false, yet Fox News viewers will maintain their veracity with incredible zeal. Why? Is it simply that we have lost our respect for knowledge?

My curiosity about this question compelled me to sit down and document the most oft-used methods by which willful ignorance has been turned into dogma by Fox News and other propagandists disguised as media. The techniques I identify here also help to explain the simultaneously powerful identification the Fox media audience has with the network, as well as their ardent, reflexive defenses of it.

The good news is that the more conscious you are of these techniques, the less likely they are to work on you. The bad news is that those reading this article are probably the least in need in of it.

1. Panic Mongering. This goes one step beyond simple fear mongering. With panic mongering, there is never a break from the fear. The idea is to terrify and terrorize the audience during every waking moment. From Muslims to swine flu to recession to homosexuals to immigrants to the rapture itself, the belief over at Fox seems to be that if your fight-or-flight reflexes aren’t activated, you aren’t alive. This of course raises the question: why terrorize your own audience? Because it is the fastest way to bypasses the rational brain. In other words, when people are afraid, they don’t think rationally. And when they can’t think rationally, they’ll believe anything.

2. Character Assassination/Ad Hominem. Fox does not like to waste time debating the idea. Instead, they prefer a quicker route to dispensing with their opponents: go after the person’s credibility, motives, intelligence, character, or, if necessary, sanity. No category of character assassination is off the table and no offense is beneath them. Fox and like-minded media figures also use ad hominem attacks not just against individuals, but entire categories of people in an effort to discredit the ideas of every person who is seen to fall into that category, e.g. “liberals,” “hippies,” “progressives” etc. This form of argument – if it can be called that – leaves no room for genuine debate over ideas, so by definition, it is undemocratic. Not to mention just plain crass.

3. Projection/Flipping. This one is frustrating for the viewer who is trying to actually follow the argument. It involves taking whatever underhanded tactic you’re using and then accusing your opponent of doing it to you first. We see this frequently in the immigration discussion, where anti-racists are accused of racism, or in the climate change debate, where those who argue for human causes of the phenomenon are accused of not having science or facts on their side. It’s often called upon when the media host finds themselves on the ropes in the debate.

4. Rewriting History. This is another way of saying that propagandists make the facts fit their worldview. The Downing Street Memos on the Iraq war were a classic example of this on a massive scale, but it happens daily and over smaller issues as well. A recent case in point is Palin’s mangling of the Paul Revere ride, which Fox reporters have bent over backward to validate. Why lie about the historical facts, even when they can be demonstrated to be false? Well, because dogmatic minds actually find it easier to reject reality than to update their viewpoints. They will literally rewrite history if it serves their interests. And they’ll often speak with such authority that the casual viewer will be tempted to question what they knew as fact.

5. Scapegoating/Othering. This works best when people feel insecure or scared. It’s technically a form of both fear mongering and diversion, but it is so pervasive that it deserves its own category. The simple idea is that if you can find a group to blame for social or economic problems, you can then go on to a) justify violence/dehumanization of them, and b) subvert responsibility for any harm that may befall them as a result.

6. Conflating Violence With Power and Opposition to Violence With Weakness. This is more of what I’d call a “meta-frame” (a deeply held belief) than a media technique, but it is manifested in the ways news is reported constantly. For example, terms like “show of strength” are often used to describe acts of repression, such as those by the Iranian regime against the protesters in the summer of 2009. There are several concerning consequences of this form of conflation. First, it has the potential to make people feel falsely emboldened by shows of force – it can turn wars into sporting events. Secondly, especially in the context of American politics, displays of violence – whether manifested in war or debates about the Second Amendment – are seen as noble and (in an especially surreal irony) moral. Violence become synonymous with power, patriotism and piety.

7. Bullying. This is a favorite technique of several Fox commentators. That it continues to be employed demonstrates that it seems to have some efficacy. Bullying and yelling works best on people who come to the conversation with a lack of confidence, either in themselves or their grasp of the subject being discussed. The bully exploits this lack of confidence by berating the guest into submission or compliance. Often, less self-possessed people will feel shame and anxiety when being berated and the quickest way to end the immediate discomfort is to cede authority to the bully. The bully is then able to interpret that as a “win.”

8. Confusion. As with the preceding technique, this one works best on an audience that is less confident and self-possessed. The idea is to deliberately confuse the argument, but insist that the logic is airtight and imply that anyone who disagrees is either too dumb or too fanatical to follow along. Less independent minds will interpret the confusion technique as a form of sophisticated thinking, thereby giving the user’s claims veracity in the viewer’s mind.

9. Populism. This is especially popular in election years. The speakers identifies themselves as one of “the people” and the target of their ire as an enemy of the people. The opponent is always “elitist” or a “bureaucrat” or a “government insider” or some other category that is not the people. The idea is to make the opponent harder to relate to and harder to empathize with. It often goes hand in hand with scapegoating. A common logical fallacy with populism bias when used by the right is that accused “elitists” are almost always liberals – a category of political actors who, by definition, advocate for non-elite groups.

10. Invoking the Christian God. This is similar to othering and populism. With morality politics, the idea is to declare yourself and your allies as patriots, Christians and “real Americans” (those are inseparable categories in this line of thinking) and anyone who challenges them as not. Basically, God loves Fox and Republicans and America. And hates taxes and anyone who doesn’t love those other three things. Because the speaker has been benedicted by God to speak on behalf of all Americans, any challenge is perceived as immoral. It’s a cheap and easy technique used by all totalitarian entities from states to cults.

11. Saturation. There are three components to effective saturation: being repetitive, being ubiquitous and being consistent. The message must be repeated cover and over, it must be everywhere and it must be shared across commentators: e.g. “Saddam has WMD.” Veracity and hard data have no relationship to the efficacy of saturation. There is a psychological effect of being exposed to the same message over and over, regardless of whether it’s true or if it even makes sense, e.g., “Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States.” If something is said enough times, by enough people, many will come to accept it as truth. Another example is Fox’s own slogan of “Fair and Balanced.”

12. Disparaging Education. There is an emerging and disturbing lack of reverence for education and intellectualism in many mainstream media discourses. In fact, in some circles (e.g. Fox), higher education is often disparaged as elitist. Having a university credential is perceived by these folks as not a sign of credibility, but of a lack of it. In fact, among some commentators, evidence of intellectual prowess is treated snidely and as anti-American. The disdain for education and other evidence of being trained in critical thinking are direct threats to a hive-mind mentality, which is why they are so viscerally demeaned.

13. Guilt by Association. This is a favorite of Glenn Beck and Andrew Breitbart, both of whom have used it to decimate the careers and lives of many good people. Here’s how it works: if your cousin’s college roommate’s uncle’s ex-wife attended a dinner party back in 1984 with Gorbachev’s niece’s ex-boyfriend’s sister, then you, by extension are a communist set on destroying America. Period.

14. Diversion. This is where, when on the ropes, the media commentator suddenly takes the debate in a weird but predictable direction to avoid accountability. This is the point in the discussion where most Fox anchors start comparing the opponent to Saul Alinsky or invoking ACORN or Media Matters, in a desperate attempt to win through guilt by association. Or they’ll talk about wanting to focus on “moving forward,” as though by analyzing the current state of things or God forbid, how we got to this state of things, you have no regard for the future. Any attempt to bring the discussion back to the issue at hand will likely be called deflection, an ironic use of the technique of projection/flipping.

In debating some of these tactics with colleagues and friends, I have also noticed that the Fox viewership seems to be marked by a sort of collective personality disorder whereby the viewer feels almost as though they’ve been let into a secret society. Something about their affiliation with the network makes them feel privileged and this affinity is likely what drives the viewers to defend the network so vehemently. They seem to identify with it at a core level, because it tells them they are special and privy to something the rest of us don’t have. It’s akin to the loyalty one feels by being let into a private club or a gang. That effect is also likely to make the propaganda more powerful, because it goes mostly unquestioned.

In considering these tactics and their possible effects on American public discourse, it is important to note that historically, those who’ve genuinely accessed truth have never berated those who did not. You don’t get honored by history when you beat up your opponent: look at Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln. These men did not find the need to engage in othering, ad homeinum attacks, guilt by association or bullying. This is because when a person has accessed a truth, they are not threatened by the opposing views of others. This reality reveals the righteous indignation of people like Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity as a symptom of untruth. These individuals are hostile and angry precisely because they don’t feel confident in their own veracity. And in general, the more someone is losing their temper in a debate and the more intolerant they are of listening to others, the more you can be certain they do not know what they’re talking about.

One final observation. Fox audiences, birthers and Tea Partiers often defend their arguments by pointing to the fact that a lot of people share the same perceptions. This is a reasonable point to the extent that Murdoch’s News Corporation reaches a far larger audience than any other single media outlet. But, the fact that a lot of people believe something is not necessarily a sign that it’s true; it’s just a sign that it’s been effectively marketed.

As honest, fair and truly intellectual debate degrades before the eyes of the global media audience, the quality of American democracy degrades along with it.

DR. CYNTHIA BOAZ
Dr. Cynthia Boaz is assistant professor of political science at Sonoma State University, where her areas of expertise include quality of democracy, nonviolent struggle, civil resistance and political communication and media. She is also an affiliated scholar at the UNESCO Chair of Philosophy for Peace International Master in Peace, Conflict, and Development Studies at Universitat Jaume I in Castellon, Spain. Additionally, she is an analyst and consultant on nonviolent action, with special emphasis on the Iran and Burma cases. She is vice president of the Metta Center for Nonviolence and on the board of Project Censored and the Media Freedom Foundation. Dr. Boaz is also a contributing writer and adviser to Truthout.org and associate editor of Peace and Change Journal.

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Glenn Beck: “I Could Give A Flying Crap About The Political Process… We’re An Entertainment Company"

An interesting portrait of Glenn Beck in Forbes pulls back the curtain on Beck’s sincere, “I just want Americans to know what’s going on in Washington” broadcasting persona to reveal a multi-millionaire obsessively focused on bringing home more dough.
The article states:
Beck insists that he is not political: “I could give a flying crap about the political process.” Making money, on the other hand, is to be taken very seriously, and controversy is its own coinage. “We’re an entertainment company,” Beck says. He has managed to monetize virtually everything that comes out of his mouth. He gets $13 million a year from print (books plus the ten-issue-a-year magazine Fusion). Radio brings in $10 million. Digital (including a newsletter, the ad-supported Glennbeck.com and merchandise) pulls in $4 million. Speaking and events are good for $3 million and television for $2 million. Over several days in mid-March Beck allowed a reporter to follow him through his multimedia incarnations, with one exception, his 5 p.m. daily show on Fox News, which attracts just under 3 million viewers. (FORBES has a relationship with that channel via Forbes on Fox.)
Who could have guessed that the guy who loves his country so much he’d cry for it would prove that his biggest hope for America is that it will fork up more cash for his coffers?


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