Coming Soon! The Disinformation Fixation
“When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.” -Paul Simon, lyrics from the 1973 hit song -Kodachrome
A conference of influence peddlers was recently held in Chicago. Politicos, media types, and opinion writers gathered in what was billed as ‘Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy.’ Possibly a brainchild of former president Barak Obama in collaboration with The Atlantic magazine, this multi-day conference generally concluded that disinformation, and to some degree, misinformation, is an existential threat to democracy. The gathering of mostly partisans took their prerequisite shots at FOX News and Donald Trump. If so inclined, a three-hour condensed youTube of the conference can be viewed here.
Looking around the hyperbolic stratosphere of our political rhetoric today, one gets the sense that a political talking point is beginning to fill like a hot air balloon. The burner is lit. Since political power is at stake, this narrative is rooted in fear and designed to appeal to those who wish only one acceptable orthodoxy. I suspect a coming drumbeat that it is ‘disinformation’ that is the greatest threat to democracy, if not life, will begin to echo down from our elites as we grow near to another election cycle. By their standards, if my opinion differs from acceptable orthodoxy, then it is essentially disinformation and should be held in contempt and doused in accusations of threatening democracy itself.
Mr. Obama is possibly one of the most intelligent politicos of our time. Since it appears that he is making a claim that ‘disinformation is a threat to democracy’ a personal cause, I best be careful in questioning his timing. He, after all, was elected president twice- I lost a high school student body election once.
Unfortunately, the claim that disinformation weakens democracy triggers an impulse to challenge the very notions of free speech. The solution is nearly always more censorship. And who becomes the censor in chief? Do we trust politicians with that much power? Or the technocrats?
With most of us still dealing with the consequences of the recently departed pandemic, we saw up close and personal the evolution from following the physical science to following the political science. Lockdowns, masks, and vaccine policies were subject to the exercise of various political agendas. Sometimes it was polling data that led to changes in mandates. Some states claimed superior insight and locked down tight devasting small business and causing untold emotional distress. Others, claiming equally superior insight, created few if any mandates. Two vastly different approaches having access to the same scientific information resulted in nearly identical outcomes. Which begs the question- which side of this debate produced the most disinformation?
Fresh in our memories are those who dared offer a counter opinion to our pandemic woes. Those who suggested lockdowns were unwise were labeled, censored, and de-platformed. ‘Disinformationalist!’ They were banned from social media. Some would have sent these courageous researchers and doctors and highly credentialed academics to re-education camps where they would learn how to sing the official state narrative. “And though my lack of education hasn’t hurt me none, I can read the writing on the wall…”
This is an interesting time. Having grown up knowing what a Kodachrome is and learning how to conduct a proper debate in Mr. Vanderpol’s 70’s era high school debate class, I was apparently misinformed as to the value of arguing a particular point of view. Maybe that is what Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel had in mind when they sang, “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school.” By today’s standards, Mr. Vanderpol should have told me that ultimately there is only one acceptable opinion. All others are to be considered ‘disinformation’ and, therefore, a threat to my GPA. But that is not what he believed.
I remember well when one of my children sat me down to ask an uncomfortable question, “Where do babies come from, daddy?”
“Ask your mother,” I should have answered. But I didn’t.
Curious to know if the schoolyard is still where most things are learned, I decided to ask, “Where do you think they come from?”
“From mommy’s tummy and then they drop down from… well… you know.”
“Yes, I do know, dear,” I finish for her. “I figured you knew where they came from and you are essentially right,” I finished. “Did you learn that on the playground?”
“Yep,” and off she went. A Kodachrome moment!
Ah… the unfiltered, non-curated, gritty, snotty, physical, swinging kid’s playground- where knees bleed and heads meet dirt. Still the greatest source of information and misinformation. Where opinions and evolving facts take a slide into the sand of our daily existence. Where future leaders learn how to use fear and intimidation for power. If they get it wrong today, they’ll dust themselves off and try again tomorrow.
On some playground today is a future Niccolo Machiavelli working out his or her political-philosophical theories. For it was Niccolo, a 16th-century political philosopher, who came to believe that, “One of the great secrets of the day is to know how to take possession of popular prejudices and passions, in such a way as to introduce a confusion of principles which makes impossible all understanding between those who speak the same language and have the same interests.”
Mr. Machiavelli believed that to counteract those who spread fear for political purposes, be capable of thinking for themselves. He wrote, “Minds are of three kinds: one is capable of thinking for itself; another is able to understand the thinking of others; and a third can neither think for itself nor understand the thinking of others. The first is of the highest excellence, the second is excellent, and the third is worthless.”
I’m sorry, Mr. Obama, I don’t think the expressions of a wide variety of opinions threaten our democracy. Your encouragement to the technocrats to censor more, not less, and your desire to control what I read and watch represents a far greater danger. Any attempt to allow me only a single narrative will leave me uninformed. I understand the attraction, but that is a very illiberal perspective.
The best defense of democracy is having an informed electorate.
When I think back
On all the crap I learned in high school
It’s a wonder
I can think at all
And though my lack of education
Hasn’t hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall
They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world’s
a sunny day
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
So mama don’t take my Kodachrome away
For Minds still Curious-
from others found on the digital printing press
How to do nothing. You wouldn’t think it would take a book to teach us how to do nothing… but it might. The author suggests that our hyper-connected culture with news flurries and outrage storms every minute is having a curious effect. This link is to a review.
To this social psychologist, the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel stands as a tall metaphor to what has happened in America in the 2010s. It’s a great read (long) into what happens to a great society that no longer has a shared story.