Sunday, February 19, 2017
AN EXISTENTIAL THREAT
There’s an existential threat to the United States of America, one that can change the country’s path forever – and not in a good way. No, it’s not the new President, Donald Trump. Nor is it the rebirth of radical liberalism. This frightening new threat is the growing belief that facts are fluid things, that whatever one person believes about what happened is just as valid as anyone else’s beliefs on the matter, and that there is no such thing as “truth” since we can never be clear on the facts. Others have written and spoken about this before, but here is my take on the problem.
Let me clarify a few things first: I am not a political conservative. I am not a political liberal. As my Facebook page claims, I am “excessively centrist.” Over the decades, I have voted for Republicans, Democrats, and Libertarians in about equal amounts.
So I’m not a “libtard” or “snowflake” or any of that, although that fact won’t keep the less thoughtful of readers from believing I am. Which only goes back to the problem: Facts don’t matter so much these days.
What matters instead of facts, we are learning, is how one “feels” about an issue or a person. Another way to say this is that emotions are overtaking facts in determining what people believe.
So if I feel that the water off of Imperial Beach is polluted and too dangerous to be in, then I’m going to look for and believe news stories, signs, and anecdotal evidence supporting that view. I’m going to hang more with people who believe the same thing, and we’ll share what we know about the problem. I won’t be searching out evidence of the water being safe, and I’ll find fault with anything that implies that it’s not bad. The same goes for people on the other side of the issue – those who believe the water isn’t all that polluted. The end result is each side reinforcing their own beliefs, “feeling” even stronger that they are right and the other guys are wrong.
THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD
Scientists use the “scientific method” to determine what is true or not true in the worlds of physics, biology, oceanography, and so forth. That entails extensive testing of hypotheses, with results that can be, and are, duplicated by other scientists. In the world of legitimate science, what a person “feels” about an issue – pollution levels, global warming, evolution, etc. – plays no real role. Importantly, when new information or facts call into question earlier conclusions, scientists test those and, if valid, they change their views of what is true and not true. A good scientist doesn’t stick with beliefs that have been disproved by verifiable testing and peer review.
We should all accept this philosophy of knowing what is true, even as we acknowledge exceptions to it, notably in the area of religion. Religions are largely faith-based; we can’t prove there is a God using the scientific method, for example, but we can nevertheless have faith that he/she/it exists. The Christian Church, at least up until the 16th century, and to a lesser degree well into the 19th century, taught that science and Christianity dealt with two different worlds. Whenever science disagreed with the Bible on matters of science, Church leaders actually deferred to the scientists and accepted their wisdom. That is still the case today with most Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, and Muslim leaders, although notable and powerful forces (fundamentalists) sadly choose to see science and religion as opposing one another.
Since it is difficult to be absolutely, 100% certain - especially in the social sciences, where certainty is even harder to achieve, we rely on probabilities. For most people, in most cases, we don’t literally calculate probabilities of something happening or not happening, being true or not true. Mostly, we just sort of informally figure out if something is really likely, sort of likely, probably untrue, etc. What we should ideally shoot for is something like the standard in criminal court cases: Beyond a reasonable doubt. That more or less translates into a 95% probability of being correct.
So when we say something is or is not true, we “should” know it beyond a reasonable doubt, even though it doesn’t seem that many people follow that standard. What we hear more and more, unfortunately, is people throwing out claims and facts that they haven’t vetted. They read or heard it elsewhere – probably from someone or some source that feels the same way they do on the topic. And at that point, then the whole idea of true beyond a reasonable doubt kind of goes out the window.
We’ve experienced much more of this in recent years, and especially during and after the last Presidential election. Things that should have been laughable, e.g. the Pope just endorsed Donald Trump for President, were taken as truth by millions of Americans. I say “laughable” because Popes do not endorse candidates, and in fact there was extensive media coverage of this particular Pope expressing his dismay with Trump’s policies. Why did people fall for this obvious falsehood? Well, partly because many are so woefully unaware of what’s actually going on in the world around them; they don’t read and watch legitimate news sources. But even more so, because they heard it from sources they liked and it was a message that was in tune with their own feelings.
This was an egregious example of the new phenomenon (not new, actually, but just much more prevalent and powerful than before) of fake news. This is different from merely cherry-picking which stories to print, or tweaking the way the stories are presented to favor one point of view or another. Instead, fake news is something that never even happened, presented as being real and truthful. Other recent examples are the claims about Obama not being born in the US, and the “Pizzagate” story about Hillary Clinton. These were totally false stories, or at least in the case of Obama, claims that were quickly shown to be false, intentionally sold to the public as truth.
BOTH SIDES NOT EQUALLY GUILTY
There are now a number of organizations that make good money creating fake news stories to sell to a gullible public. Two of them, LifeZette.com and a number of sites owned by Floyd Brown (Liftable Media) are run by friends of the President or his special Counselor, Kellyanne Conway. Liberals used a few stories written by Jestin Coler’s company, Disinfomedia during the election, but it seems clear that fake news stories were vastly more utilized by right-wing sources who were promoting Trump’s candidacy. And it’s easy to imagine Trump himself as being behind some of these stories.
The President has been an unquestionable promoter of fake news stories, none more blatant than his claim to have really won the popular vote, except for the “3 million to 5 million illegal votes” cast by immigrants. When pressed for evidence of this, and despite every other source denying any such thing happened (including leaders of his own party), Trump continued to insist on his fantasy. To date, no evidence whatsoever has appeared to back the President’s “long-standing belief.” The same is true with his claims that many more people attended his inauguration than the evidence shows.
President Trump has a long history of saying whatever he believes or feels, regardless of its accuracy. A study from about a year ago showed that only 9% of the public comments he made were “true or mostly true.” This compares to 51% for Hillary Clinton. How ironic that “Rotten Hillary” Clinton was actually truthful more than five times as often as Trump. While much of the country was outraged by Clinton’ lies on her email server and events in Benghazi, Trump was broadcasting egregious lie after lie, non-stop. Trump’s level of lying was (is, actually) totally unprecedented, and can in no way be compared to what Clinton or any other politician in the country’s history has done.
This last point is worth repeating. Trump supporters often claim that all politicians lie, so what’s the big deal? NO. You cannot compare his pathological level of lying with Clinton or Obama or Cruz or anyone else. Even some ultra-conservative Fox News reporters are finally seeing this. Check out this video of Fox commentator Shep Smith saying, among other things, that: “This President keeps telling untrue things, and he does it every single time he’s in front of the microphone; it’s demonstrable – I can re-rack the tape for you.” https://www.facebook.com/OccupyDemocrats/videos/1430873363672380/
Sure, the video comes from an anti-Trump source, but as the man says – all of these things are demonstrable, meaning they can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
While the alt-right has been by far guiltier in using fake news business, liberals are now starting to play the same game, as they’ve learned how viciously effective it can be. According to the Christian Science Monitor, judged to be one of the least biased major media sources, liberals are shocked at how successfully Trump and his handlers used fake new to ultimately help put him in office. They’re taking pages from the same playbook, such as showing Trump’s parents both dressed in KKK outfits. So now we have both sides using this unethical technique!
LYING ABOUT LYING
But now we also have this new thing of calling legitimate news stories, presented with some form of bias, as fake news. They are not the same thing. The media has always chosen which stories they want to cover, and how to present them to the public. And it’s not uncommon for some bias to appear in their coverage. Knowledgeable Americans expect that, and discount what the news sources print or say – at least, they should.
So if MSNBC covers the women’s march on DC, estimating 200,000 attendees and focusing more on the positives of the march than the negatives in their 5 minute story, while FOX News estimates the crowd at 100,000 and focuses on the march’s negatives in their 2 minute story – well, nobody should be too surprised. That is spinning the news, cherry-picking what to present, and showing each organization’s bias. But it’s not fake news; it’s not denying the march took place, or claiming that it was funded by Russia, or whatever that would make it a fake story.
Yet this is what the President and his team are now claiming. They have chosen to claim that fake news is everywhere, that CNN and CBS and all the rest are fake news because their coverage doesn’t favor him and therefore should be completely ignored. Every time a media source says something that Trump doesn’t like, he Tweets: “FAKE NEWS”, more and more driving that concept into the subconscious of his base.
When you look at what the legitimate media sources present, they are largely based on verifiable facts, facts that news organizations around the world agree on with very few exceptions. They are confirmed by relatively unbiased sources such as Snopes.com and almost totally unbiased sources such as The Christian Science Monitor. For the most part, they fit our earlier definition of being accurate beyond a reasonable doubt. Yet the Trump team, led by Steve Bannon, wants people to think that stories from CBS are in the same category as totally fake stories from places like LifeZette.com. This strategy has intentionally muddied the water of what is true, not true, biased, or fake.
By the way, there’s another disturbing trend lately. Remember the Fox News reporter who took Trump to task for always lying? Shep Smith was widely attacked by Fox viewers as being unpatriotic, as belonging on CNN for not supporting our President. Not – “his statements are false, this reporter is lying.” No; they don’t challenge the truth of what he says, and instead attack him for not following the false party line. I’ve read and heard this a lot lately; the only measure of truth for them is whether it supports the President or does not support him.
GASLIGHTING, ZYKLON GAS?
Gaslighting is a term that means to bombard people with contradictory “evidence” in the form of fake news and other means, in order to get them so confused that they don’t know what to believe. And in doing so, it makes people question their own judgment, and even their own sanity, as in: “I KNOW I saw Joe Politician get a pile of cash from a shady-looking character who was surrounded by several bodyguards. But everyone else is telling me that there was no pile of cash and no bodyguards; the two men merely talked pleasantly for a few minutes, and then parted company.” When this kind of thing happens over and over, you start thinking maybe you saw/heard it wrong. Before long you don’t know what to believe, so you just start ignoring the events around you.
Or simply trusting in the President! That’s a clear goal of Trump and Bannon – to get people thinking there are no truths and lies, no up or down, and whatever one person says is as likely to be true as what anyone else says. The President is our leader, he swears that only he knows the real truth about how to protect America and make it great again, and he has told us he will never ever let us down. Why not just go with what he says, instead of doing the hard work of trying to figure out who’s lying and who’s truthing?
Steve Bannon is President Trump’s Chief Strategist, and he has clearly become one of, if not the, most influential member of the President’s team. He previously led Breitbart News, which is generally accepted as being an “ultra-conservative” media organization sympathetic to alt-right views, including white supremacists. Bannon has a particularly dark view of where the country needs to go, based on his theory of inevitable, cyclical disasters.
Bannon has said that he’d like to help “bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment,” as a necessary step before rebuilding a stronger nation base on Western European, Christian values. www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/steve-bannon-will-lead-trumps-white-house Part of the process, Bannon says, is a “global existential war” between the West and radical Islam, in addition to a separate likely war with “expansionist China”. As the word “existential” implies, he sees these wars as being a life or death matter for the United States. Bannon thinks the US’s “fourth great crisis in our history, with a new and greater war” than the last great crisis – WWII – is basically inevitable, and he seems to promote the idea of: let’s get it on; the sooner the better!
To repeat: Steve Bannon is probably the President’s closest and most powerful aide; a number of sources claim that he is actually the true policy maker, and that Trump merely does what Bannon tells him to do. Bannon is the one who has urged Trump to “be Trump” all along – telling bald-faced lie after lie, insulting anyone who disagrees, taking controversial steps like the recent Muslim ban, etc. This is a very dangerous man, given his worldview and his general nastiness.
WHAT ABOUT THAT EXISTENTIAL THREAT?
But let’s get back to where this started. The existential threat I refer to here is not Bannon’s “fight to the death” with Islam and China. It is, instead, the threat upon Americans’ ability to know truth, to be able to tell fact from fiction. To distinguish between facts being presented with some bias (the legitimate media), and totally made-up falsehoods (fake news), along with bald-faced lies that bombard the public day after day.
This threat has to do with an intentional strategy by Trump, Bannon, et al. to reverse the two; to convince the American public that the legitimate media is fake news, and that the only source of truth is the President and his team. The ultimate goal, of course, is to drown out the truth and let Trump do whatever he wants, regardless of its merits and legality. As key Trump adviser Stephen Miller recently said on national television: ”the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”
The latter part of the quote is shocking, reminiscent more of a brutal dictator than the leader of the free world. As a result, it’s clear that President Trump believes the executive branch of our government should be more powerful than the judicial branch. This could be the beginning of an attack on the Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land.
A concerted attack on the Constitution probably won’t happen. But even if only the current situation continues, the country is in a dire position. Those whose go-to response is "FAKE NEWS!" seem to have neither the intellectual skills (familiarity with concepts such as logic, evidence, probabilities, reasonable doubt) nor interest in seeing the light. It’s hard to see their views changing. As a consequence, the fate of our sadly divided nation rests on what is essentially a war between those folks and the rest of us, because neither side will go down gently.