Thursday, December 22, 2016

Fake News

In regard to the currently hot topic of fake news, one is tempted ask whether “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” is an example and whether the dire predictions about the ravages of climate change to our planet by 2010 is another. One could ask the same question about any number of apparent hate crimes roundly condemned in the press, which have subsequently been exposed as lies--as when the homosexual pastor in Austin, TX, for instance, himself adorned with a slur a cake that he had purchased at Whole Foods or the recent burning of a black church in Mississippi by one of its members, who attempted to shift suspicion by painting the slogan “Vote Trump” on the side of the building. Although such incidents show that the left can traffic in political lies as well as anyone, the current left-wing obsession with fake news nevertheless does rest upon a serious dread.

That dread is the suspicion that we can no longer trust the masses of people--hence, of voters in our democratic society--clearly to understand the world around them and make rational decisions about it. In a stable world, anyone who spent half a minute looking at the story currently known as Pizzagate would see instantly that it is laughably false. (And one can also see instantly that belief in such an idea can have devastating results, even for perfectly innocent people.) Such analysis, however, isn't innate to human beings any more than is analysis of the physical world or the world of numbers and mathematics. The human mind can turn itself to and approve all manner of objects, including selfish desires, material wealth, kindness, hatred of the stranger, Sanskrit, chocolate, or Elvis Presley. The mind can also approve ideas for a variety of reasons, some of which have little to do with their truth or falsity--one need think only of the yes-man among the middle managers willing to approve any suggestion, no matter how inane, of the people upstairs so that he can join their ranks. The left is correct that in a democratic society voters must be able clearly to distinguish between truth and falsity in order to make correct--and therefore wise--decisions that will affect themselves and those who live with them.

Other forms of analysis--of musical harmony or the human body--require training of neophytes by experts, and democratic society has provided for the formal education of its young and the training of their minds before they participate fully as citizens by voting. (Hence the voting age in the United States coincides, for the most part, with graduation from school.) If it is now disturbingly common in our society for people to believe that John Podesta is a satanist or that a pizzeria in Washington DC favored by staffers of Hillary Clinton is a den for the ritualized sexual abuse of children, then one must surely ask not why these beliefs in particular have gained such wide acceptance but why those who believe them are unable or unwilling to analyze them and see them as preposterous on their face.

If people genuinely believe that 9-11 was an inside job, then we should ask why they lack even the rudimentary skills necessary to see the absurdity of such a claim. The fault must lie in large measure with our system of education. For decades conservatives have decried American public education as a scandal: now we see that twelve or more years devoid of serious demands on students’ intellect may in fact pose a serious danger to democratic society. And the irony that at long last the American left is beginning to reap the harvest of the substandard education they have so long fostered is at best very bitter indeed.

Another problem, however, may rest not in the inability to recognize truth but in the moral failing of holding beliefs for the sake of political convenience. As the middle manager may agree with his superiors only because he wants to be one of them, so also many people in our society seem to espouse beliefs not because they are correct but because doing so is necessary for them to belong to the tribe. Recognizing this bias in myself helps me see it as well in a very well educated friend who once told me that Sarah Palin is mentally challenged because claimed to be able to see Russia from her home in Wasilla, Alaska. When I pointed out to him that his statement was false, he refused, despite his inability to produce any other evidence, to change his assessment of Palin. To do so would have put him beyond the pale of those he had come to regard as enlightened, a group that he has staked his identity upon joining. His desire to speak the shibboleth with regard to Sarah Palin, an infallible gauge of one’s political correctness, is essential to his self-image, regardless of whether or not what he believes about her is true. Precisely the same is true about the belief of some conservatives with regard to President Obama’s being a Muslim. Back in the day, William F. Buckley, Jr. insisted on excommunicating from the movement anyone who made the idiotic claim that President Eisenhower a card-carrying member of the Communist conspiracy. Hindsight shows just how prescient Buckley’s insistence proved to be.

But if a person’s simple inability to detect a manifestly fraudulent claim indicts our system of education, then a person’s unwillingness to accept what he knows to be true calls seriously into question the moral training we give to our young. That problem reaches the heart of what is most vital to a civilization and its cultures--and is a subject proper not for a brief meditation or a post on a blog but for a lifetime of study and practice.