Friday, December 30, 2016

The post-truth world threatens both democracy and a healthy citizenry

I used to wonder about the relative importance of the literary theme, “appearance versus reality,” as it applied to the various novels, plays, poetry and even the short stories that found their way into the curricula of high school English classes. At the time, character and plot and setting did seem to be more obviously significant, and would, by inference, trump “appearance versus reality”.

Today, on the last weekend of 2016, I no longer wonder about the relative importance of the appearance versus reality theme.

Holocaust deniers, for starters, have always made my head shake, and my mind go numb. How is it possible to deny the deaths of six million Jews, and the maiming and wounding of scores more by people clearly identified as members of the Third Reich, including the Fuhrer himself? So indisputable are the facts that even Germany’s reputation has been forever tarnished by the legacy. Nevertheless, even today, more than a half century later, there are still court cases being waged by “holocaust deniers” whose apparent contempt for Jews subverts or buries their conscious perception and their receptivity to facts of history.

And, of course, there are among us, in every country and especially in the new Trump administration, “climate change deniers” whose intransigent clinging to economic arguments to generate and to protect “jobs” (translate: profits for their corporate friends and funders) once again subverts or buries their recognition of the massive mountain of evidence that human-generated carbon dioxide is destroying the ozone layer and directly impacting the world’s temperatures and threatening the survival of the eco-system as we know it.

In each and every dispute, there is always the “he-said-she-said” combat between different “realities” through which only a third party, dispassionate, detached and somewhat objective, can navigate and facilitate the process of a settlement. This is especially “true” when the levels of anger, betrayal and contempt are near the “ten” on a scale of 1-10.

In other places in this space, the case has been made focused on the generation of a massive new industry, the information/public relations/message doctoring/marketing/propaganda machine, statements from which have to be read, heard and dissected with increasing scepticism and even cynicism. So dominant and apparently conventional and integrated into the social consciousness and culture is this “machine” that much of what passes for “news” today is lifted, often without even the benefit of thoughtful and balanced editing, and then broadcast over formal news outlets, as well as a galaxy of websites. Governments, for example, have at least two versions of their formal acts: the legal/legislative/budgetary version and the political/public/vernacular/headline-focused. And the difference between the two “poles” is often so disparate that an interested and concerned citizen can be excused for mis-apprehending the import of the “facts”. So “clouded” or “encrusted” with what we call spin, depending on the source and its bias are many of the ‘stories that pass for water-cooler talk about public issues that one wonders if the public is not so taken for granted that public officials depend on both short memories and distorted perceptions of their “audience” to create and to maintain their public reputations and their public ‘stature’ such as it is.

And then there is the recent presidential campaign in which facts were so irrelevant and replaced by blatant ad hominum attacks to generate “emotion” (both positive in supporters and negative in enemies) that the public literally became lost in the cloud of dissembling.

However, there is still a world order to maintain. And that world order depends for its stability upon a mutual sharing of a precise and indisputable compendium of information, which “vault” will be increasingly under threat from the various contenders for world power and influence. Currently, the U.S. intelligence, supported and reported by sources like the New York Times, tells us that Putin and the Russian intelligence apparatus cyber attacked the information systems of the United States for the purpose of interfering and influencing the presidential election. Obama, after considerable pressure, has deported 35 Russian operatives living in the U.S. and closed two “estates” in which they lived and worked. He has also imposed sanctions on close contacts with Putin, while Russia has persisted (supported and reported by Trump and his ‘gang’) in pleading for “proof” of the validity of the U.S. charges.

On a different front, we see similar behaviour coming from the Obama administration and Netanyahu’s government in Israel over an abstention by the U.S. in a vote to condemn settlements in the West Bank. The administration maintains that their abstention is completely in line with the traditional position of American administrations back to Ronald Reagan, while Netanyahu maintains that the abstention is a stab in the back by its “ally” the United States. Allan Dershowitz, for one, the legal scholar and Israel advocate, who supported Obama’s two elections, expresses profound anger and betrayal by Obama for this latest decision. Just as in the Obama/Putin dispute, so too in the Obama/Netanyahu conflict there is the dynamic of statement-followed by denial. And, once again, the public ( in its various complex and disparate component parts) is left to ponder “truth versus spin”….just another way of “positioning” appearance versus reality.

And, not only are there disparate versions of reality on the surface, there are also the underlying and frequently unstated motives that prompt the public statements. Legal scholars have attempted for centuries to preclude any consideration of motive from the “evidence” considered by a judge and/or jury. However, a penetrating interpretation of the empirical evidence can and often does point to the “mental state” of the accused at the time of the occurrence. Speculation, or interpretation, or what some would call an “informed opinion,” is usually considered a reputable source for explaining to the public the various statements and acts of political actors. They too, however, all have personal opinions, often referred to as ideologies, depending on the situation, including and perhaps especially Supreme Court justices. So even in the reflections and the debates among jurists there are and are expected to be deep divergences of opinion, while, the justices, we believe, adhere to an agreed statement of fact.

It is this ‘statement of fact’ that is missing from more and more of the public concentration on public issues. And its absence, and the expectation that it will never be part of our collective consciousness, that does and will continue to cause deep angst. And our urgent pursuit of the “facts” amid the tidal waves of distortion, dissembling, lying, and statements from Orwell’s Ministry of Truth (1984), (the public ‘organ’ dedicated to telling the people what to believe, and possessing the ability and the responsibility to change their story at the behest of their “bosses”)….

With the election of Trump, America, and consequently the world, has taken a giant step toward a state in which propaganda replaces facts, in which facts themselves no longer are even an important component of the decision-making process of political leaders..(perhaps they never were and we were being seduced all along, although we certainly fought that potential with all our might for centuries). And this demise of a shared body of facts comes at a time when the news “reporters” are being shovelled out of major news rooms to reduce operating costs around the world as their corporate bosses watch the out-going tide of revenue from advertising.

And the resulting convergence of the dropping number of “fact” reporters and the dismissal of facts from our public discussions is a panorama of his dreams for people like Trump and Putin, never wanting to be constrained by the truth.

Truth-tellling, after all, is so restricting of a demogague’s dream of supremacy, of “making America/Russia/Phillippines/North Korea/Iran… (pick you country and your demogague) GREAT AGAIN!

And the critical observations, punditry and even water-cooler conversations based on a reasonable grasp and representation of the facts is one of the most important, if not the most important, weapons to preserve a public order that puts the elected officials dependent upon the will of the people.

Our will, informed by the facts, and our assessment of the motives of our ‘officials’ constitute the cornerstone of our national and international world order. And as we watch the flying charges and counter-charges of something proposing to be “fact” in a tornado of propaganda, we are losing our bearings.

It is as if our ship of state is and will continue to founder in a sea of storms, with each wind coming from a different source and all of them competing for our “trust”….and the ship’s radar, along with its connection to “mainland” have gone AWOL. The sky too is also charcoal black, leaving no cosmic reference points out of our conundrum. If we do not know where we are, and we do not know which direction we are facing, and we have no stars or moon helping us to reconnoitre in a universe whose control levers have been placed (somewhat by our own actions and failures to act) into the hands of the Putin’s, Trump’s Duherte’s, Kim Jung Il’s, Assad’s and whatever the Supreme leader in Iran, just to mention a few of the obvious “state” demogogues, without even making reference to the avowed terrororists, little wonder there is a global angst.
And, to think that the flow of “information” (verifiable and verified facts) in each of these realms has either completely dried up or is quickly drying up, we can only imagine the glee in the minds of each of these dictators, now beyond the reach of penetrating investigative reporters, with respectable podia from which to broadcast their nefarious plots. We may like social media, and we may be entertained by fake news, but make not mistake, when Trump says ‘computers have made it so that no one really knows what is going on’ (in reference to the reports of Russian hacking to influence the U.S. presidential election) he is consciously and deliberately adding to the ubiquitous campaign (both overt and covert) to sabotage the flow of legitimate information.

Without the constraints of an informed public, and an incisive and relentless army of truth-diggers in every country, and from many countries so that nations do not have to depend on the “controlled” and manipulated media of their own country, at least in the short run, the field will have been vacated, leaving the imposters (insofar as their commitment to anything but their own agenda and not to the public good) free to roam like the dinosaurs they are.

Never in my lifetime have news organizations like National Public Radio and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, both funded by private donations and government policy respectively,  been more important to the survival of access to reputable and trusted information.

And with the announcement that Barack Obama will dedicate his time after leaving the White House to the issue of re-districting, commonly known as gerrymandering, that process that Republicans have used in too many states to restrict voting among minorities and poor voters. This issue is just another threatening the full scope and depth of a thriving democracy. And for Obama’s commitment, in conjunction with his former Attorney General Eric Holder, the outgoing president will continue to make a positive impact on his nation, long after his formal departure.

Perhaps, with some of his ‘friends’ the two-term president might persuade the presidents of the various media conglomerates in his country, and those in similar offices around the world. Of the imminent danger to good governance, and to democracy from the atrophy of valid and verifiable information.

It is not only cyber security that threatens our democracy. We are also facing a scarcity of information, linked to a tidal wave of mis-information, that renders the concept of “engaged and informed citizen” eunuched, if not a relic of history. If we are going to be serious about never accepting the validity of the Trump presidency, and for many of that, that is really the only starting premise, we have to wage an all-out campaign for a vigorous and relentless access to independent public information.

The lies, exaggerated and bloated promises, mis-information campaigns and the masking of the truth, by calling voter restriction an initiative to counter voter fraud (when there is no voter fraud!!) to cover the bigotry that is its source, have been the primary, or perhaps exclusive offering on the menu of too many people magnetizing the news channels and the newsrooms.

Power corrupts not only the individuals “with power” but also the sycophants who consider personal tweets as significant as policy statements, and the confusion (conflation) is not either incidental nor insignificant.

In another life, I recall a Liberal “truth squad” sitting at the front of every campaign speech uttered by their Progressive Conservative opponent, John Diefenbaker, because the prairie courtroom lawyer was exaggerating his promises, and the bases for his policy positions. Both Liberals and Conservatives of that time would be rolling over in their graves at the prospect of fake news and leaders impunity in deploying their epic distortions. Not yet rendered grave-bound, we too would do well to take a page from their song-book, and roll not only our eyes, but our minds to confront what is a shared and malignant enemy of our mutual truth.


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