Cenk Uygur was born in Turkey and immigrated to the United States with his family when he was eight years old, later becoming a naturalized citizen. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and Columbia Law School, and was a practicing attorney in Washington, DC, and New York. In 2002 Uygur left his lucrative career to launch the independent news show, The Young Turks, on Sirius Satellite Radio. Three years later the show became the first live, daily web video show, streaming from its Los Angeles studio. Today The Young Turks reaches millions through radio, its YouTube channel and, most recently, on Current TV. In 2011 Uygur started a political action committee, named Wolf-PAC, with the explicit goal of forcing a constitutional convention and amending the U.S. Constitution to end corporate personhood, limit the private funding of elections, and end Super PACs. Uygur was awarded the American Humanist Association’s Humanist Media Award at the AHA’s 71st annual conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, on June 8, 2012. The following is adapted from his acceptance speech.
I like to say I’ve evolved, having grown up in Turkey in a family that was both secular and Muslim, which in Turkey is very common because the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemel Ataturk, really stressed secularism. Turkey was very proudly secular, lately not as much but we’re trying to get back there.
In college I started taking classes in different religions—Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and so on—and I was stunned by the lack of reason in all of them. The story that really cemented my nonbelief was actually from the Bible, not the Koran. It’s the Tower of Babel story, in which rational, reasonable people work together and build this great tower. But God gets angry. He’s threatened and decries our hubris. Now, if my son built something great, would I be jealous? No, I’d be incredibly proud. But that’s not the God in the Bible. He says, all right, since you guys actually dare to be decent human beings, I’m going to destroy your tower. I’m going to make you all speak different languages and spread you throughout the land so that you can never work together again.
There’s a saying in Turkish: you close a book when you’re done with it and you drink a cold glass of water. I closed the Bible and I said somebody get me a cold glass of water, because I’m done with this. If this is God then I’m against him. I’m for humanity.
Now, I understand there aren’t a lot of open agnostics or atheists or humanists on TV, which is part of the reason I’m here. And I watch Bill O’Reilly from time to time, and whenever he uses the term “secular humanist,” he spits it out: those ssssecular humanists. I don’t get it—secularism is great. I mean, even if you’re religious, you shouldn’t want to mix religion and government. One, it hurts your religion overall; and two, which religion gets to dictate the law? And then with the term humanist—who’s against human beings?
The truth is, when agnostics or atheists or humanists come out on national television and say they don’t believe in a god it offends people. (You know what offends me? When people say I’m going to be eternally tortured by Satan, ostensibly because I don’t believe in him or his better half.) So why do I speak out when others don’t, on this issue and others as well? Because I think you should tell the audience what’s true. The media has lost sight of that for fear of offending people, because when you offend people you lose advertisers.
Let’s talk about politics in that regard. Right now what we have is the cult of neutrality in the press. What they’ve done is confused neutrality with objectivity. Objectivity is: “The Pittsburg Steelers played the Dallas Cowboys in an NFL football game, and the Steelers won 42-21.” Neutrality is: “The Steelers and Cowboys played, the Steelers say they won and the Cowboys say they won.” But wait a minute—both can’t be true. A game was played and there was a score. Can you tell me what the score is?
As absurd as that sounds, they do it in politics all the time. Take the 2000 presidential campaign. Al Gore and George W. Bush had three debates. Now, this was in the bad old days when I was a Republican, a liberal Republican from the Northeast, mind you, which of course is now an extinct species. And I watched those debates having never before voted for a Democrat, and I thought, wow, that guy from Texas is just too stupid. I can’t do it. (Former Texas Governor Ann Richards had that great line about George W. Bush: He was born on third base and thought he hit a triple. I happen to think he was born on third base and thought he’d kicked a field goal.)
Now I don’t expect the rest of the media to say that the guy is stupid. We have to pretend that the emperor has clothes and that he’s a brilliant guy and earned the governorship. So, fine, don’t call him stupid. But the truth is Gore crushed Bush in every debate and, based on the polls conducted after each one of them, every single pundit and host and anchor in the United States should have said it was very clear the American people thought Gore won all three. Now, one could dispute the polls, but at the very least you should report them, right? But they didn’t because they were trying to be neutral. Instead, they said Gore sighed too much. Media Matters actually did a terrific job of tracking that meme. It turns out it came from a Republican National Committee memo that went to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News and into the mouths of every single pundit in the United States.
Another example is the idea that Saddam Hussein attacked the United States on 9/11. Now, wait a minute—that’s not what happened. Yet when we invaded Iraq in 2003 that’s exactly what 69 percent of Americans thought. Now, if some people were saying he did and others were saying he didn’t, nobody on CNN was going to say that he didn’t attack us because that wouldn’t be neutral. You’re right, I say, it wouldn’t be neutral, but it would be objective.
Look, I’m not embarrassed about being right. The great advantage I have is an open mind. I’m a rational humanist, so if I’m wrong, I change my mind. And then I’m right again. Take my previous support of the death penalty. I’m Turkish. I’m vindictive. I like violence, to go with some stereotypes. If somebody in my family were killed, I’d want vengeance. I don’t hide that. But here’s the problem—facts. We often incarcerate and kill the wrong people. There was a recent study saying that at least 200 of the people executed in the United States were actually innocent of the capital crime for which they were sentenced. How can you look at that fact and still be in favor of the death penalty? Who says, yeah, I’m for execution even if it’s the wrong guy?
The other reason I don’t mind speaking the truth so forthrightly is because you’ve got to get into the fight, otherwise you automatically lose. So when it comes to the humanist perspective, we’re 14 percent of the country. Put another way, 14 percent of the people in the United States aren’t religious. That’s a giant chunk. But we aren’t strongly represented in Congress or in the political media. We’ve got to make our voices heard and say we’re not going to take it anymore. We’re not going to get steamrolled by the Bill O’Reillys of the world and the Neanderthal Republicans who try to push the Bible on everyone and put the Ten Commandments on everything.
We had a discussion on The Young Turks just the other day about why so many South Koreans are Christian. It’s because missionaries went to South Korea and they did a terrific job. They turned a country that used to largely believe in Shamanism and other local religions into a very, very Christian nation.
What if we actually came with a message that was reasonable and logical, and we sent missionaries all across the world saying, “Hey! This is not a dry run. Whether you believe in a god or you don’t, live this life.” United, we can make a difference, whether it’s in politics, whether it’s in the media, or whether it’s in this fantasy I have of missionary work for humanists.
Thank you so much for the award. I couldn’t appreciate it more.
(What follows are responses to questions posed by audience members at the awards banquet on June 8, 2012.)
Cenk Uygur on the National Defense Authorization Act:
The most frequent criticism I get these days is that I’m not a good Democrat, and I say, “You’re damn right I’m not. I’m not on Team Democrat. I’m on Team America.” Seriously, the National Defense Authorization Act is one of the most unconstitutional laws I have ever seen in my life. It takes away habeas corpus. (And Barack Obama was a constitutional law professor. Are you kidding me?) NDAA says that the U.S. military can detain anyone anywhere in the world if the military calls them a terrorist. We don’t have to give them a trial and they can be detained indefinitely. That’s what dictators do.
I love this country. I believe in this country. Actually, I’m corny enough to believe in the idea of America. But what has made us exceptional is not that we break the law but that we follow it, and we encourage others to as well. We spread human rights. We founded the United Nations. We enacted the Marshall Plan. We brought the world together. That’s what makes America exceptional—not indefinite military detentions without trial.
But our government has ridden so roughshod over the Fourth Amendment—oftentimes the Fifth, the Eighth, and many other amendments for that matter—that we’ve gotten used to it. Warrantless wiretapping? George W. Bush did it, so the Republicans are okay with it. Obama did it, so the Democrats are okay with it. It’s got bipartisan support. Yeah, let’s eavesdrop on everybody without a warrant!
…on how journalists forget what they’ve been taught about the difference between objectivity and neutrality:
I have bad news—they’re no longer taught that. They’re just not. Let me give you a sense of the culture in journalism because I’m not only in media, I also interview journalists as part of my job. Sam Donaldson was on The Young Turks years ago. He said that when he was part of the White House Press Corps, whenever he challenged the administration, whether it was the Reagan administration or the Clinton administration, and the White House called to complain, his boss, ABC News President Roone Arledge, would give him a raise.
Now, it’s the exact opposite. Speaking off-record, a reporter from one of the top papers told me, Cenk, I’ve got kids. I’ve got a lot of bills. I need the access. If I don’t have the access, I don’t have quotes, and my editor says: without quotes there’s no story, and without stories you’re not working here anymore.
These days the journalists don’t even question it. They think their job is he said/she said: “Well, I got a quote from my Democratic insider who said this, and I got a quote from my Republican insider who said that.” Who gives a shit? What’s the reality? What’s the truth? Nine times out of ten they’re not even told by their editors to get it.
…on how money will affect the 2012 election:
I think it’ll probably decide it. Looking at congressional races, if it was a fact that 93 or 94 percent of the time the candidate who raised the most money won, now in the wake of the Citizens United decision it’ll probably be 99 percent of the time. We go on voting as if it matters. We go on pretending we still have a democracy, but the reality is it’s been bought by the highest bidder.
The old adage was, if you can’t drink their beer and take their money and still vote against them, you’re not a real politician. That’s long gone. They drink the beer, they take the money, and they do exactly as they’re told.
Again, it’s not a Team Democrat-Team Republican thing. The top donors to President Obama in 2008 were the bankers. Number one was Goldman Sachs. And after the worst economic collapse brought on by clear and obvious financial fraud, Obama beat George W. Bush’s record for the lowest number of prosecutions for fraudulent banking practices. Money is the only thing that matters. And it’ll take a political revolution to change that.
Regarding the presidential race, that’s a slightly different dynamic because both candidates are so well known. And there’s a threshold you reach with so much media, beyond which there’s a diminishing return on the money. So that one is more uncertain, and right now I have no idea who will win. Nobody really does, and if they tell you otherwise, either they know something no one else does or they might be fooling themselves.