How Media Destroys Black Lives Matter: “Anchor Left, Pivot Right”
Above Photo: Demonstrators hold a banner at a protest against American police brutality in Berlin, Germany. (Photo: Wolfram Kastl/Getty Images)
As a college professor who teaches her students to decipher information, I have found it increasingly difficult to guide my students through current rhetoric, current texts, whether they be in the form of books, articles, films, documentaries, or performances. What I’ve come to understand is that, in the guise of complexity, insidious messages are couched within the framework of sensible logic and liberalism or even the idea of “revolution.” An overt, less sophisticated example would be the stereotypes perpetuated in the films of Quentin Tarantino–stereotypes about women or people of color that rarely show any wisdom or complex characterization–all presented in way that tries to convince the viewer a violent woman is liberated or a revenge-driven Black man is happy. I lament how often film-goers think Tarantino has a revolutionary message. He does not.
However, there are other, more sophisticated examples of how we imply a liberal message while actually planting a covert, conservative message, a message which actually serves the status quo and keeps people divided. For example, current rhetoric about former President Theodore Roosevelt would have us believe that he was a pioneer of democracy, despite the fact that he led with a “Big Stick” mentality and enslaved people of color throughout the world with his foreign policies. Our documentarians are not revising history when they change the rhetoric about his bullying ways; no, they are showing the complexity of the man, supposedly. The result: venerating a man that caused the deaths of countless South American and Caribbean peoples. The internalized message: it’s okay to enslave/murder people as long as they don’t live too close to us. It isn’t a surprise that such a message is important to those in power today, given our neoliberal global economy. Another example is how in Arizona, Latinx studies classes, and many books (by both Latinx and non-Latinx authors), were banned not because of racism, but because they were supposedly divisive and could cause treasonous actions. Pay no mind to the fact that the students, both students of color and Whites, who took the classes graduated at much higher rates than students who didn’t. While this ban was, thankfully, overturned, the rhetoric at the time was that banning the classes and books was protecting students from racism. The internalized message to non-Latinx: Latinx studies is dangerous and causes controversy, and Latinx and historical books are bad.
And now, some of us wonder how in the world there can be anyone who doesn’t understand the reform that is needed in our police departments, in our educational systems, in our political system, in terms of respecting the lives of people of color, most importantly Black brothers and sisters. How is it possible that some folks don’t understand the gravity of the situation? Those of us who have been stopped, or who have family who have been stopped, or who have experienced both macro- and micro-aggressions in the workplace or elsewhere, or who have lost loved ones, or who were nearly lost ourselves, we know exactly what is happening. But how can someone who read about Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. being arrested on his porch not understand? How can someone who saw the blood spilled over and over on video not understand? How can someone who can look out the window and see that their environment is Whiter than Wonder bread, and know how it got that way, and know that it will remain that way, not understand? How can some of us who claim to be open-minded and loving, who claim to be good people, not understand?
I know how. It is because we are inundated with little seeds that many of us do not see. I see these seeds because they nearly killed me throughout my life, so I trained myself to see them, as a survival tactic. Many of us never notice them at all.
Who plants these seeds? Lots of people, but there is a current ringmaster. His name is Steve Bannon. He runs what I would call a media think tank and empire where young people, most White but not all, push a message that supports a conservative agenda. His storied biography is covered in depth here, and you’ll find that in addition to having a military background, he worked on Wall Street, he took over a studio in Hollywood (one that produced hit indie films The Indian Runner and Julie Taymor’s Titus), he jumped into television at the perfect time to make lots of money off hit TV show Seinfeld, and also became a leader of conservative web media when Andrew Breitbart died and Bannon became executive chairman of Breitbart.com.
Somehow, Bannon, who has a degree from Harvard Law and degree in national security from Georgetown, always seems to be in the right place at the right time, and he has used those moments to his advantage in order to be of great influence in the media. For example, after making his indie films in Hollywood, he quickly changed his tune and then began to make documentaries on conservative leaders like Ronald Reagan and Sara Palin (I acknowledge that I’m stretching the boundaries of meaning by calling her a leader). His earnings from his time at Goldman Sachs, royalties from Seinfeld, and other successful jobs and investments, have also allowed him to train and support other young, conservative writers.
One of the most successful is Wynton Hall, a Texas A&M graduate who is a regular speaker on Bill O’Reilly’s The Radio Factor, and who has ghostwritten many books (some NYTimes bestsellers) for conservative politicians, Jewish icons, and – wait for it – Kylie and Kendall Jenner (are you surprised?). Hall’s prowess as a writer sets the tone for the group of writers that Bannon has cultivated, and Hall often has mottos and phrases that he repeats in order to inspire. This activity is what brings me back to the theme of this essay, and how the crucial need behind Black Lives Matter is slowly chipped away by insidious media. One of the phrases that Hall promotes in the think tank is, “Anchor left, pivot right.” What that means is that articles that are posted on Breitberg.com, for example, which are the most right-wing articles you can think of and that can be really polarizing, are not useful for the conservative, neoliberal mission (a mission which wishes to put public dollars into private hands – think of how our prisons have been privatized, how charter schools funnel public dollars into private institutions, and how projects like that ruin the lives of people of color). Instead, it is better to start with a seemingly liberal idea or seemingly logical idea – such as, our schools are in trouble and we don’t want to burden the public with more taxes – then the idea is pivoted into a conservative realm – so, we should allow the private sector, for fewer dollars than would normally be spent on schools, to provide a better education for our children. We often don’t realize the problems with such a strategy until we find ourselves with schools that don’t accept children of color at the same rate as others, that don’t provide equal support for disabled students, and that skew success rates by expelling students who need more help. Anchor left, pivot right.
The anchor left, pivot right rhetoric is especially dangerous because it is not a Fox News tactic. It is a New York Times tactic. As theBloomberg News article I linked to above reports, Bannon’s book on Hillary Clinton provided information that was widely cited in theNYTimes. The article literally states that the conservative information is preferably “weaponized…onto the front page of the New York Times.” In other words, even though we may think we are reading the most liberal and well-written news in the country, “facts” in some of the articles can be from a decidedly conservative and agenda-driven source: Bannon’s think tank. Bannon and Hall stress that they work in facts, and even go so far as to use a program that mines the Deep Web for hard-to-find information. The NYTimes also cited one of their Deep Web finds, regarding the Clintons and donors who benefited from their relationship. While this kind of journalism seems reputable – facts are facts, right? – what we forget is that Donald Trump, who Bannon endorses enthusiastically, hasn’t allowed the public to see his tax returns at all. The implication is that the Clintons are doing something wrong, but the same scrutiny is not given to the candidate that Bannon endorses. Anchor left, pivot right is done to get liberals to question their own ideas, but Bannon does not encourage his group to anchor right and pivot left in order to get conservatives to question their ideas. The idea is to undermine the ideas of people who are in the middle or left and steer them to a conservative viewpoint, and never the other way around, which results in a lot of unquestioned conservative thinking.
Ultimately, this information that Bannon’s group generates comes to you in the form of posts that friends you probably have de-friended have put on social media. For example, the video that started my initial search into this group of writers shows a goofy looking man by the name of Milo Yiannopoulos explaining why “Black Lives Don’t Matter to Black Lives Matter,” his main argument being that Black people kill each other more than police kill Black people. I knew the statistics and argument were nonsense when I saw the video, and most of the people posting in the thread of the video knew that, too, but there were some folks who were convinced by the weak argument. Yiannopoulos is a senior editor at Breitbart News, and apparently he was recently denied a visit to DePaul University because the students protested, but the video was not disseminated by him. It was posted by Subject: Politics, tagline: “No Safe Spaces Here.” The tagline implies that those of us who have advocated for safe spaces where we can be ourselves without persecution are asking for something silly. The tagline implies the LGBTQ community needs to “man up” and the Black Lives Matter organization needs to “get over” an issue that supposedly doesn’t exist. The tagline completely ignores how many Black, Brown, and LGBTQ people have been murdered and persecuted for centuries.
Subject: Politics does not list its Board of Directors or even just a webmaster, but I found the guy who runs it. Subject: Politics is run by Eric Wemlinger and he lives in Washington, D.C., he was a Constituent Visitor Assistant to Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), and he, like Bannon and Hall, is a White man. (Wemlinger, as of the printing of this essay, is also on Facebook.) Bannon funds the creation of content, Hall creates the content, Wemlinger disseminates the content. And that is just one scenario of how these insidious ideas infiltrate our media. There are other writers and other bloggers who mirror this dynamic. Bannon, on the other hand, seems to be one of the main funders of such information.
These White men, and others like them, and people of color who somehow work for them (hello people like Stacey Dash and Wendy Williams), work night and day to influence folks who are somewhere in between the right and left – and that is most of us, realistically. They anchor their statements in those that we already hold, and then they veer the conversation towards what they really want, which is continued power for White men. This is an exciting game to them, a game that their privilege allows while the rest of us face possible death while it’s being played. Sometimes the seeds seem innocuous: like an episode of Seinfeld where a person of color with an accent is the butt of a joke the group of friends enjoys; or an episode of Saturday Night Live where we finally have Black actors, but a White actor plays an ignorant, sleazy Latina with a horrible accent, or an episode where we are asked to laugh at a presidential candidate who hates people of color. These are not innocuous moments. These are the seeds that make horrible ideas grow in us, ideas that make us think someone’s poverty inevitably brought on being shot by police, ideas that make us think that we have nothing to do with what is going on because we are different from those who are affected, ideas that allow us to brush off the buffoonery of a race, ideas that allow us to see others as less than human, thus allowing us to degrade our own humanity in the process.
Don’t let your principles be steered by anyone. Be aware of the anchor left, pivot right dynamic. Find out who is in control of the information and what their motives are.
Me? I’ll tell you my motive: I want to live and I want all my brothers and sisters to live and thrive. We’ve fought for our lives for centuries. We ain’t about to stop now.