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Bemoaning our post-truth society

Joey Kennedy

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By Joey Kennedy
Alabama Political Reporter

Many readers know that, along with my journalism career, I’m also an English instructor at UAB. During most semesters, I teach two or three classes in the English Department, usually freshman composition courses and/or sophomore literature.

I enjoy teaching, and I’ve been doing that at UAB since 2001.

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This semester, however, I’m a “communications” instructor as well, as part of an interdisciplinary course in the UAB Honors College. In my years of teaching, I’ve never taught as a communications or journalism instructor; I stick to English because I love to teach writing, and the UAB English Department has been very, very good to me.

Still, the offer last spring to be part of an interdisciplinary faculty in the UAB Honors College this fall was too intriguing to pass up.

With Donald Trump as president, the interdisciplinary course “Evidence and Belief in a Post-Truth Society” could not be more timely. The 117 first and second-year honors students are actually taking seven courses. Disciplines represented include English, psychology, theology, science, philosophy, literature and communications. This round, I’m the communications dude and one of six full-time and two part-time faculty members.

Throughout the fall semester, students will be exposed to this seemingly post-truth reality we’re living in now. Fake news vs. real news. Shaky belief systems and fact-based evidence. Why believing something is true doesn’t necessarily make it true. Opinion isn’t fact, but fact can be manipulated by uninformed opinion.

Analysis is telling us that much of the information put out by the Trump administration simply is false, but many Americans don’t care. If what’s said lines up with their beliefs, that’s good enough for them.

But in fairness, fake news and politicians misleading or outright lying to the public isn’t anything new. Since people began sharing information at the beginning of civilization, misdirection has been part of the deal.

Perhaps no regime did it better than Nazi Germany beginning in the 1930s and through World War II. Media have been tightly controlled by some governments for devious designs as long as there have been governments.

The United States is somewhat unique in that a free press (along with free speech) is guaranteed by our Constitution.

Yet, with a president who shouts “fake” news practically every day, the issue is before the American public as never before. With various social media exploding across every platform, it’s easy for truly “fake” news to make the rounds and to gain a foothold.

As citizens, we’ve always been responsible for using our own critical and skeptical thinking to determine what news and information is credible, and what is absolute hogwash.

But we have to do the work. We have more information today than ever before, yet we seem more gullible today than ever before.

Just this week, as Texas floundered in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, President Trump did what most every U.S. president does following a major disaster: He visited some of the affected areas to encourage first-responders and those citizens in the storm’s impact area.

And like most U.S. presidents before him, Trump was criticized for his response. In the wake of that criticism, Trump supporters took to social media to defend the president.

“How come we never saw Obama helping the Katrina victims? Oh, that’s right he was golfing at that time,” said one Trump backer on Twitter.

In fact, Obama did help Katrina victims, in person, at the Louisiana Superdome shortly after the storm in 2005. More important, though, is that Obama wasn’t even president; it was President George W. Bush who responded late to Katrina’s devastation. Obama wouldn’t become president for another three years.

“And where was obama when katrina hit. Vacationing and didn’t answer for 3 days? You lefties are all on crack,” Tweeted another Trump supporter. Again, Obama was not president in 2005.

And at least one fake Tweet was credited to @realDonaldTrump himself: “Wow! Worst flood in 1000 years! Amazing! Experts say precedented! Flying to Texas to see myself! Exciting! Then Missouri for huge rally.”

Yeah, it looks and reads like a Trump Tweet, but Snopes.com says it’s a fake.

This may really be a post-truth society, where “belief,” no matter how unbelievable, no matter how inaccurate, is all that matters.

We must become critical thinkers again. We must, as I tell my composition students, evaluate sources. Just because someone in authority says something doesn’t mean we have to believe it. Just because we “saw” it somewhere doesn’t make it true.

Yes, our beliefs can be truth, but our beliefs also can be a bunch of hooey.

Opinion is just opinion; informed opinion is based on research and fact, but with a perspective. Facts ARE facts. Lies ARE lies. Be skeptical — of the government, of media, of your parents and your friends. Don’t believe everything you read on Facebook.

That’s a big part of the message I hope we convey to those 100-plus UAB honors students this semester. It’s the same message I hope to deliver and have tried to deliver to every student I teach.

As one of my UAB Honors College colleagues said this week, “I’m the college professor your parents warned you about.”

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

 

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column each week for Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Opinion | We could do worse than John Merrill

Josh Moon

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I’m going to do something that my progressive friends will mostly not like.

I’m going to say nice things about Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill.

I know. I know.

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But hear me out.

Because part of the reason that I’m doing this is I believe politics at every level has devolved into such a scorched-earth, I-hate-everyone-on-the-other-side sort of spectacle that we’re no longer willing to say any person from the other team is doing anything good. Even when they are.

And Merrill is.

Yes, I know he’s blocked several dozen people on Twitter, and I find that silly and pointless and illegal.

And yes, I know he has been snarky and sarcastic to some of you. And to me.

But even so, we’re lucky we have Merrill.

Because it could be so much worse.

If you doubt this, I would like to point you to news stories from other states with Republican-dominated legislatures. Like Ohio, where they’re booting active voters off rolls for missing a single election. Or North Carolina, which implemented the most unreasonable voter ID law in the nation to prevent minorities from going to the polls.

Alabama has one of those voter ID laws, too. And it has the right now to kick voters off the rolls for missing an election.

But what you don’t have in Alabama is anywhere near the level of disenfranchisement of voters. Even a federal judge agreed, when upholding Alabama’s ID law.

That’s mostly due to Merrill’s work.

When Alabama’s legislature passed its voter ID law a few years ago, it placed very few requirements on Merrill’s office for how to go about making those IDs available. It was a stupid, pointless law that in no way deterred voter fraud, but it was a law that Merrill’s office had to deal with.

Instead of taking the usual Alabama path and doing the absolute bare minimum required in the job, Merrill went the other way. In the years since that law was passed, his office has put a mobile ID unit on the street, they’ve coordinated with various groups to set up registration drives in underserved areas, they’ve actually visited the homes of people to issue voter IDs and they’ve implemented electronic registration.

That last one has been the biggie, with more than 60 percent of voters registered during Merrill’s tenure coming since the electronic registration went live a little more than a year ago. That electronic rollout also included an app — an app built by the staff of the Secretary of State’s office.

They’ve tried to work with the county Boards of Registrars to get registration info into the communities and schools. They’ve pushed registration through an ad campaign. And they’ve been willing to travel to pretty much any festival, ball game, bake sale or other community function to set up a registration drive.  

And let me repeat: None of this was required of the Secretary of State’s office.

At the same time, Merrill took a different approach from Ohio to cleaning up the voting rolls (removing deceased voters, people who moved, etc.). Instead of labeling voters who fail to return a verification card as “inactive,” the SoS office implemented a two-step process that began when only if the Post Office returned a notice for a voter.

And even if the two notices were somehow missed, if a voter shows up to the polls and finds themselves on the inactive list, the fix is simply updating the SoS address card at the polling place and then voting a regular ballot (not a provisional one).  

Again, this wasn’t required. And a much more mean-spirited, onerous process is now perfectly legal, according to our Supreme Court.

The decision to make Alabama’s process reasonable and fair was Merrill’s.

And look, it’s perfectly reasonable to say that Merrill and his staff shouldn’t get huge praise for doing the job they should be doing. After all, voter registration is the top priority in that gig, and there’s not a close second. So maybe we shouldn’t be handing out cookies for stuff the Secretary of State is supposed to do.

But that line of thinking ignores the reality of Alabama politics and the reality of the politically polarized country in which we live.

Because you just know that nine out of 10 Republican politicians wouldn’t have done half the things Merrill has. They would’ve offered a Jeff Sessions, little-kid-burning-ants, evil grin and hid behind the law and the lack of funds and the indifference.

That’s the norm.

So, yeah, Merrill loves the spotlight and camera lights. He has weird, right-wing beliefs that I wholly disagree with. And he has not always done enough to protect voter rights.

But man, things could be so much worse without him.

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Opinion | State schools chief backtracks, Montgomery schools mess grows

Josh Moon

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Never mind.

That’s essentially what state schools superintendent Eric Mackey told parents, business leaders, school system employees and everyone else on Tuesday, telling the Montgomery Advertiser that he — the top executive in all of Alabama public education — might have been mistaken when he talked about the effects of Montgomery’s public schools potentially losing accreditation.

Oops.

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A little more than a week ago, a few days before school board elections in the county, Mackey stood before the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce and Montgomery County Commission and told a dire tale of hardship that was certain to set upon the poor children of Montgomery if board changes were not made.

No out-of-state colleges.

No private colleges.

No federal aid.

The effects would be devastating, driving people from the capital city at a pace faster than they’re currently leaving.

Small problem: None of that was true.

I called Mackey on it. I asked his office to provide evidence that it was true, because the Federal Student Aid office told me it wasn’t and two college presidents said it wasn’t.

But that was prior to the elections still, so the best I could get from Mackey was a garbled statement explaining that a loss of accreditation was very bad, which, of course, no one was arguing. But it’s one thing to say it’s bad and quite another to have the state schools superintendent stand before you and say your kids won’t be able to attend college unless you make changes to the school board.

That last part is what Mackey did. He was flat wrong.

And now he’s saying so. But he’s blaming it on an unnamed source. Because apparently Alabama’s superintendent of schools needs to be told by someone else what accreditation loss means.

Mackey wouldn’t tell the Advertiser who the source was, but he insisted that the source was “reputable.”

You’ll have to decide whether, at this point, Mackey is reputable enough to be believed.

Because that’s not all Mackey was apparently wrong about. During that speech to the County Commission, Mackey was discussing an accreditation report on MPS from the district’s accreditation agency, AdvancED. The report was, to put it lightly, not good.

But to hear Mackey and Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange talk, unless those board changes were made — changes that were being pushed by a political action committee tied to the mayor and his consultants — well there was just no way to avoid a loss of accreditation.

Fast forward to the same Advertiser interview: Mackey now says not to sweat that loss of accreditation, because MPS was forced into selling off Georgia Washington Middle School and because it’s operating a summer reading program that was already scheduled when the accreditation review took place.

Read that again. Let it sink in.

MPS losing accreditation, according to Mackey and other city leaders, rested on the sale of a middle school building and a summer reading program. Oh, and don’t let me forget those terrible board arguments — the ones that never rose to the level of formal complaints, rules violations or violations of state open meetings laws.

If all of that is true, AdvancED accreditation is worthless.

But slightly less worthless than the opinion of anyone from the state department of education on the operation of a local school district. Because if the state’s operation of Montgomery’s school district is any indication, they have no idea what they’re doing.

MPS was better run by MPS.

In the year and a half or so that ALSDE has been in charge of MPS, they have overspent on administrators, overspent on an odd cleaning contract instead of allowing already-employed custodians to do it, gave out raises to failing school principals, then had to give out raises to all principals, forgot to get their expensive administrators certified (some still aren’t), hired a guy who was barred from all of New York City’s schools and had to quietly run off most of the administrative hires it made.

But here are the two kickers: 1. After all of the money that has been spent, there hasn’t been a single additional teacher, aide, coach or book purchased to help improve the learning environment of a child in MPS, and 2. After all the complaints of mismanagement, not a single principal was removed.

Now, look here, MPS has serious, serious problems, and there isn’t a soul alive who would deny that. But what’s taking place in Montgomery right now isn’t an effort to better anything for those poor kids. It’s an effort to protect the pocketbooks of a few wealthy businessmen.

It’s an effort to simply change the image of MPS, instead of its culture and basic operation. It’s yet another attempt to educate the advantaged at the expense of the disadvantaged.

It’s wrong. As wrong as the state superintendent.

 

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Opinion | We’re perfecting the “art” of being mean

Joey Kennedy

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My mother, Patricia Ann Harper Kennedy, has been dead more than 21 years now. She died young, in 1997. She had cancer. She did not have health insurance.

Mom couldn’t get health insurance because she had a “pre-existing,” non-malignant tumor a decade before her fatal cancer. She wanted insurance. She could have paid for insurance. But she couldn’t get it. The insurance industry wouldn’t let her have it.

Despite the promises of the Affordable Care Act, we’re moving right back to that horror again today.

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Under the ACA, or Obamacare, as Obama-haters like to call it, people couldn’t be denied insurance because of pre-existing conditions. Nor was there a limit on how much an insurance company was obligated to pay for a health issue. Our kids can remain on our own insurance until they’re 26.

We’re the only First-World nation in the world that doesn’t view health care as a right. We don’t mind if sick people shoot up schools, clubs, churches, or concerts with their Second Amendment rights, but we won’t promote the general welfare by making sure sick people can see a doctor in a timely manner.

The Donald Trump administration’s Justice Department, under the leadership now of our former and long-terrible U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, is doing all it can to destroy the ACA. And, like so many progressive, successful, and humane programs started during Barack Obama’s eight years in office, Trump and Sessions are doing a great job tearing those programs down.

America – and Alabama, too – are becoming more mean every day. Sessions is mean, and that is reflected in his Justice Department’s policies.

So the Justice Department will no longer defend certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The decisions Sessions and his mean colleagues are making will lead to even higher health insurance premiums. Even more mommas dying without insurance.

But the meanness isn’t simply reflected in damage to the ACA.

Sessions no longer will allow citizens of countries that basically condone gender abuse to get asylum in the United States. Go ahead and beat those women to death; that’s not our problem.

Home of the brave.

Compassion? Trump and Sessions likely can’t even spell the word, much less define it. It is not “covfefe.”

A “true” state’s righter, Sessions demands that the federal government enforce laws against recreational marijuana use in the states that have already approved it. Hypocrisy is a Republican value.

Temporary refugees from so-called (by this administration) “sh—hole” countries are finding they’re losing their protection. Go home. Leave us alone. Be murdered.

A woman’s right to manage her own body is under unprecedented assault. By men.

The LGBTQ community, which only recently won the right of marriage, finds itself the target of “legal” discrimination under this administration. Our transgender and gay members of the military are now at risk.

Children and parents trying to get asylum in the “land of the free” are being brutally separated. Many hundreds of those children are now, literally, “lost.”

We’re friends with North Korea’s brutal dictator, but are confrontational with the leaders of our strongest allies, including Canada, Mexico, Great Britain, France, and Germany.

We’ve got a mean streak that was suppressed by better angels in previous administrations, but has now been unleashed by Trump and his hate-filled minions, including Sessions.

Sadly, in our state, many politicians (all Republicans) tout this hateful Trumpism as a reason to vote for them in their TV commercials. Too many hateful voters feel enabled by that. So we get people like child molester Roy Moore running for the U.S. Senate, and supported by Alabama’s first woman governor since Lurleen Wallace.

We let our worse demons loose to kill our better angels.

We’re killing angels.

We want to make Medicaid practically impossible for our poorest to get. And we’re a very poor state. We want to deny food aid to children. We want to privatize public education and prisons, so private corporations can make more money.

We celebrate being mean. We monetize being mean.

Angels are dying.

My mother was too young two decades ago when she died of cancer. She was helped along to her early death by the highly profitable health insurance industry. The one we are bringing back.

Today, I don’t have health insurance. I cannot afford it. I haven’t been to a doctor in 18 months. My hope depends on living until I’m 65 and can get Medicare, which I’ve paid into my entire professional career. That is, If Medicare as we know it still exists in 2021. These Trump Republicans want to get rid of that, too.

I am 62 years old. Next year, I’ll be my mother’s age when she died. So little has changed.

Well, except we’re even more mean.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

 

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Bemoaning our post-truth society

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