Referendum on Reality

Hate to sound glib here but the CV-19 pandemic in the United States is basically been a referendum on reality—you acknowledge it (deal with it) or do not acknowledge it (willful blindness).

The complete unqualified support the President received, and continues to receive, reflects this dangerous rejection of reality by a good proportion of Americans.

If you cannot convince someone there’s an immediate problem when 126000 body bags are filled and counting, how in the heck do we get America to move on something that is actually more dangerous to humanity—climate change—which takes place so gradually?

Reality? I check that box.

Yes, Donald. That’s a solar eclipse.

Conversation with A-a-ron

“All the idols made by man, however terrifying they may be, are in point of fact subordinate to him, and that is why he will always have it in his power to destroy them.”—Simon du Beauvoir

This is a conversation I had with my oldest son a few years back.

Aaron: why’d Achilles die the way he did?

Me: because his mother Thetis dipped him by the foot in the River Styx so he wouldn’t die young. The water made him immortal. But his ankle was not immersed so he remained vulnerable there.Aaron: why not turn him over, dip him in the water completely and finish the job? Or switch feet and hang him by the other side?

Me: because Achilles would not have been nearly as interesting if they did that I guess.

This got me thinking: all myths—dwhether produced by the ancient Greeks or by we moderns—never stand up to even the simplest most childlike question.

Myths, and magical thinking, persists precisely because human ignorance and credulousness continue to make such fertile soil; by simply inventing answers to mysteries we are not actually increasing our knowledge but moving further away from reality. So your belief in homeopathy, Reiki, acupuncture, chiropractic, astrology, etc. all anesthetize the intellect making one a slave to both mindless abeyance and absurdity.

Diversity is Strength

Canada is a nation of immigrants (it’s a fact): go back far enough every single one of us—European, African, Asian, even First Nations and Inuit—can trace their origins to somewhere other than Canada. Humanity explores, it puts down roots and calls wherever it happens to end up home. People attach a lot of importance to home: this is where they raise their families, worship, work, play and build a life for themselves; and it isn’t terribly surprising when we encounter strangers living among us that one of our first instincts is to become defensive as opposed to embrace them.

Canadians are known worldwide as being “awfully polite”; however, they aren’t immune to xenophobia or fear of foreigners. There were three major waves of Irish immigration to British North America: the first came around the time of the American Revolution in the 1780s; the second took place during the 1840s when a potato famine drove approximately 1.5 million Irish Catholics to Canada. My ancestors on my father’s side arrived in the United States during the third wave in the 1890s; they established a farm somewhere in the American Midwest eventually moving north to Canada to take advantage of free land on offer when the Canadian West was being settled during our so-called Golden Age. In all three cases, the Irish were not well-received: in the context of both Canada and the United States, English Protestants felt threatened by the sudden influx of Irish Catholics. The Irish were thankful for the opportunities afforded to them by their adoptive countries; nevertheless, their presence elicited negative reactions among Americans and Canadians alike.

Newcomers always force us into uncomfortable spaces by challenging us to re-evaluate ourselves and our priorities; they compel us to ask questions around what it means to be a People and a nation. In the present day, some of us are responding as well as can be expected to Syrian refugees (and, more recently, to others groups escaping to Canada because of an uncertain future in the United States). Most of our problems when it comes to dealing constructively with one another is the result of a certain inability to empathize with one another. The people best responding to the influx of Syrians, for example, are those capable of seeing something of themselves in these new immigrants—people displaced by famine, war, and repression in their home countries; yet, there are others of us who aren’t responding so well: ironically, some Canadians on social media are using the self-same arguments against Syrians that previous generations used against their own Irish, Norwegian, Swedish, German and Ukrainian ancestors, e.g. these people aren’t like us; they didn’t work for what we have; we owe them nothing; they’re wrecking the country; everything was so much better before they came; they’re stealing our jobs; they’re lazy, speak funny, and don’t look like us real Canadians.

The idea of a real Canadian versus a fake one is a strange concept to me; it’s not like we can freeze time and say there, back in the 1820s (November to be exact) during the colonial period, that is what Canadians should strive to be, we should all be white, English Protestant United Empire Loyalists; or wait it’s 1867 and Canadians can be French Catholic now, just not too French, but it’s finally acceptable; or it’s 1945 and the end of World War II, England is less important to us and out of compassion we’re welcoming Hungarians and other dispossessed persons to Canada because they need our help (we didn’t like them so much in 1914 but times have changed); or it’s 1965 and we have a new flag and First Nations peoples are no longer willing to be second-class citizens and the majority of Canada’s immigrants are from Africa and Asia and, without us even realizing it, we’ve moved from bi-culturalism to multiculturalism. We didn’t even notice the change (and certainly didn’t plan it); yet we are, and will continue to be, a multicultural society whether critics and xenophobes like it or not.

Friedrich Nietzsche observed humanity is in essentially a continuous state of revolution (or paradigm change). We don’t recognize these changes because what once appeared as revolutionary eventually becomes the basis of a new normal. Thus, a Canadian born in 1840 naturally answers the question “What is a Canadian?” differently than say one born in 1867, 1919, 1945, 1965, 1995, or 2020. If there’s a standard definition of what constitutes a true Canadian, it’s a floating one and definitely isn’t as simple as saying it is someone who is white, English-speaking, and Christian. With that said, the wave of Syrian immigration to Canada took place during a time of significant stress: the recovery of the global economy from the shock it received during the Great Recession (2009) is still in doubt and we continue living with its legacy, e.g. wealth is increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, Canadians and Americans are becoming more and more desperate because of a sense of financial insecurity, and where the economy goes so too goes our seeming capacity to practice tolerance and pluralism; also, we are also confronted by the specter of climate change and an inability to deal with it effectively or its secondary effects, e.g. over 30 million people are currently displaced worldwide and considered “climate change refugees” (some of whom are seeking refuge in North America and Europe); this number is bound to grow as climate change’s effects become increasingly severe and ubiquitous; and right wing political movements—secular and religious—are responding to these changes and growing in popularity as though we’re rehearsing for World War III; and then add to that a global pandemic it’s little wonder so many people have such mixed feelings about helping strange Syrian refugees when extant Canadians themselves don’t feel secure enough about their own or their children’s futures.[1]

So where does this leave us? I suppose at one of those revolutionary periods Nietzsche mentioned. The great irony is we possess all the knowledge and understanding to solve every single one of our problems; yet, it seems we’re doomed to repeat past mistakes instead of learning from them because of a fundamental lack of collective character or imagination to conceive of new ways of living alongside and treating one another better. There’s not much historical precedent when it comes to nations or societies becoming selfless or other-centered in times of significant economic downturn, political upheaval or when confronted by an existential crisis as significant as climate change (or the massive cultural shift we’re currently seeing with Black Lives Matter following the death of George Floyd).

I would argue we can use how we eventually decide to treat refugees and immigrants as a litmus test for our future prospects: some political theorists argue history is on the side of democracy. I appreciate the sentiment but I would add the following caveat, i.e. history is on the side of those who want to survive. The great irony is most people think survival means circling our wagons, siding with the tribe and keeping strangers out. The truth is the world is a much smaller place in 2020 than it was in 1920 when the Spanish Flu epidemic rocked the world. For this reason, I believe, if we’re going to survive we’re going to have to find ways to do it together; it’ll be cooperation not competition that’ll determine humankind’s direction and whether there’ll be a Canada or a United States for future generations to immigrate to.

Notes [1] Poll suggests 25% of Canadians want Drumpf-style policy suspending refugees | CBC News

Social Media is a Cancer

I heard possibly the most apropos description of the role social media plays when it comes to shaping public dialogue and understanding for the negative: political leaders and other individuals knowingly perpetuating conspiracy theories and speaking outright lies without anything being done about it. Section 230 of the Decency Act prevents social media companies from being held accountable for being a pulpit for pseudoscience and harmful propaganda. This is a good thing, in principle, because rarely does censorship end well; but in the reality zero-accountability is destroying the public’s capacity to make informed decisions.

This reminds of the situation back in the 1950s when corporations were dumping mercury into lakes and rivers with abandon because it was more profitable and easier to just dump it than recycle it (it only later became illegal when the harm to public health became apparent); and so Facebook (which is probably the worst of these corporate polluters) sits behind Section 230 and is an enabler of the transmission of information which hurts the public understanding of science (e.g. climate change denialism and anti-vaccination propaganda), politics (e.g. Russian trolls and “pizzagate”), justice (e.g. Trump deflecting criticism from himself on to “Psycho Joe Scarborough” by Tweeting long debunked falsehoods about a so-called cold case), ethnic groups (e.g. Myanmar used it encourage and maintain the genocide of the Rohingya) and so on.

I’m 48. I’m not ancient, but I’m not young. Something feels tangibly different today than it did when I was younger and I think it has everything to do with how we use and how much we consume social media: we are less tolerant of diversity; we are less tolerant of disagreement (considering it destructive to friendship as opposed to just a reflection of that aforementioned diversity); there’s a belief that an uninformed personal opinion on any given topic is equivalent in trustworthiness to the expert on that given topic; there’s way too much tolerance on the right for a lack of fundamental decency where people veil their intolerance behind attacks on political correctness; and there’s too much of a demand on the left for cultural and political purity that to disagree with them you get branded as a racist for even thinking of dissenting.

Gateway to Destroying Truth: Holocaust Denialism

The casualty of the ongoing culture wars raging in the United States today is a decrease in the public’s trust in media, political figures and the historical record. Leaders exploit this uncertainty using a combination of fear mongering and plausible deniability to mould public opinion. If you can simply wipe away the historical record by calling it “fake”, then collectively we are in a lot of trouble indeed. Specifically, for any civilization to cohere, move forward, or even endure, its people must share a historical sensibility in common. When memory itself is under assault, as is the case with Holocaust denialism, then all of us placed into greater jeopardy because scrupulous and powerful individuals will exploit the subsequent weakness; and with every such attack democracy and the democratic impulse becomes just a little weaker. Democracy dies the death of a thousand such wounds.

Perspectives on Antisemitism
Racism affects every single society on the planet shaping politics, economics, social policy, culture, art, music and everything in between. Racism is not a rational viewpoint to hold; it is an emotional response of a person to the strange and unknown. Racism reflects the fact human beings are not particularly rational by nature. We tend to make decisions from the hip based on incomplete information. In the process we risk mistaking our assumptions about people for facts. Since 2015 antisemitism (or hatred of Jewish people) has risen significantly in democratic countries like France, Britain, Germany, Canada and the United States.

Antisemitism’s rise correlates with the significant economic problems following the Great Recession in 2009 and a subsequent rise in populism.[1] Mark Twain reputedly observed history doesn’t repeat though it rhymes. With Twain’s observation in mind, the 1920s and the early 2000s “sound” eerily similar: during these two decades both Germany and the United States experienced existential crises where economic collapse fell fast upon the heels of military failure, e.g. Germany losing the Great War and the United States being chastened in both Afghanistan and Iraq. These crises contributed to, and exacerbated feelings of, desperation and a sense of rootlessness in German and American political life; and in both situations, for good or for ill, the type of leaders benefiting most weren’t democratic-minded ones but reactionary men promising radical solutions.

Economic or politic crisis doesn’t always mean a rise in the popularity of right-wing movements. However, at the risk of sounding fatalistic, authoritarianism does hold a certain attraction for those of us—especially in times of uncertainty—who look at the world in black and white terms as opposed to grey.[2] In this context, the fear felt by white Americans, and expressed in their support for Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election, seems understandable, even predictable. There really is no historical precedent of a majority (white men) going quietly accepting their fate, i.e. sitting back while women grow in influence and immigrants from Asia, Africa and the Middle East radically change America’s demographics. The average person really isn’t motivated by principles like pluralism, tolerance or even democracy. Instead, what motivates them more are things reflecting some of the cognitive (“thinking”) problems affecting to human nature: tribalism, the distrust of strangers, and the jealous guarding of privilege.

One of the oldest and most common forms of racism is antisemitism. For centuries Jews have experienced violence and discrimination at the hands of Christian groups and governments.[3] This hatred isn’t confined to the past: in 2017 white supremacists, and members of the so-called “alt-right” (otherwise known as reactionary conservatives), marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. They were protesting the removal of statues depicting “heroic figures” who fought defending the South during the American Civil War. The majority of these statues were erected in the 1960s, 70s and 80s—in reaction to the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—making many African Americans feel insecure and understandably upset, i.e. these statues are justifiably perceived as symbols celebrating racism. The Charlottesville white supremacists marched at night carrying torches shouting “Jews will not replace us” over and over and over again. The protest reminded me of similar actions taken by National Socialists in Germany during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Eventually, during a counter-protest white supremacists and their opponents clashed in street battles. One counter-protester was killed when a white nationalist drove his car into a crowd. On October 27th, 2018, a white supremacist walked into a Jewish place of worship in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania opening fire killing eleven Jews.

Actions are the products of thoughts and thoughtlessness: in April 2018 an article broke revealing how four out of even ten millennial had never heard of the Holocaust.[4] Ignorance of the Holocaust didn’t necessarily contribute to either the Charlottesville or Pittsburgh events; however, when we forget or ignore our collective history we seem to be doomed to repeat past mistakes.[5] The world has changed a lot over the past seven decades since the end of World War II. Human rights are more broadly respected. In Western countries like Canada, America, France, Germany and Britain, minorities enjoy greater security and opportunities than ever before. Governments and courts actively protect vulnerable people from exploitation and discrimination. Yet, despite this progress some people remain unwilling to tolerate others different than themselves. Jews, and other minorities, are still targeted by hate groups, e.g. Jewish gravestones are frequently marred by spray painted Swastikas, synagogues are broken in to and burned, and the people themselves are likewise attacked.

As bad as the marches by torch wielding white nationalists, and the physical attacks on Jews themselves, I’d argue one of the greater threats to Jewish people comes in the form of Holocaust denialism. In an insult to the memory of millions of people who suffered and died under the Nazis, deniers claim the Holocaust never even happened. If deniers convince us 6.5 million people didn’t die in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Dachau, or Treblinka, etc. then they might be able to convince us to reconsider other things like respect for human rights or tolerance of minorities generally; it is important to fight Holocaust denial if only to preserve and remember the voices of a million children silenced by jack booted, educated men.

Elie Wiesel, author of the novel Night, is only one of many people who actively worked to preserve the memory of those who died in the camps. Historian and author, Deborah Lipstadt, likewise worked opposing Holocaust denial and antisemitism. She publishes books, gives lectures, takes the deniers on directly through court cases, educates people, and generates awareness of the problem of denialism by working closely with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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[1] Populism is a political approach where leaders of a movement appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. Populist leaders were elected in the United States, Italy, Turkey, and Brazil. The growth of populism reflects the growing discontent among the average person with politicians who appear to be beholden to corporate interests. Regrettably, in the Western context the growth of populism correlates strongly with a growth in intolerance.

[2] Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, Authoritarianism & Polarization in American Politics, p.18.

[3] Jews were not allowed to hold certain types of jobs or participate as full members of society; they were forced to live in ghettos apart from surrounding Christian communities. In addition to being socially and economically marginalized, Jews experienced violent persecutions (called pogroms) in every country, e.g. they were thrown in to holes upside down and buried, they were drowned, and beaten to death.  Although the Jewish People have suffered persecution for centuries, the term anti-Semitism is actually a relatively new word: it is based on a 19th century German term, e.g. Judenhass literally meaning “Jew-hatred.”

[4] The Holocaust was the product of the Nazi’s so-called “Final Solution” the “Judenfuge” (translated to “Jewish problem in Europe”). Two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe was gassed, starved, shot, etc. from 1941 to 1945. This equates to approximately 6.5 million people (an estimated 1.5 million were children). The article can be accessed here: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/holocaust-study-millennials/.

[5] The German philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831 CE) observed “the only lesson history teaches is we don’t learn from history.”

“Trump” + Florida Man

An older couple after hearing the President tout the healing properties of hydroxycloroquine, which were unproven at the time of the claim (and has since been studied to show an actual increase in mortality rates due to CV19), drank some aquarium cleaning solution which had chloroquine phosphate in it. The wife mixed up the solution. The husband died. She was hospitalized. The packaging actually says “not for human consumption”. And why wouldn’t you Google “is chloroquine phosphate safe to consume”?

This is why it matters what people in positions of authority say: not everyone possesses the discernment to navigate life safely. Not sure how some of y’all survived past 30 to be honest. So what you say publicly must be measured and planned (and not ad hoc). There was a spike in poisonings following the POTUS’ claim that drinking bleach might kill the virus.

What a disaster. I am too scared to Google the phrase “Florida man” + listened to Trump.

Reality matters. Being lead by a used car salesman has its uses but I sure would not want one in charge of this crisis.

Read an article covering this example of natural selection here.

Imperial Irony

Watching my cat look out the window and this random thought pops in my head: former 19th century empires–France, Germany and England for example–are the friendliest states in Europe to the idea of multiculturalism.

There are, of course, people in these countries who fear diversity; however, the majority of their populations are cosmopolitan in their outlook. Interestingly, Hungary and Poland–both countries occupied by outsiders throughout the 19th century–are the most resistant to immigration and the most cloistered.

So, in something of an ironic twist, we have the countries which robbed the identity of nations 150 years ago now embracing those identities; and those states that had their identities robbed are the most reluctant to embrace diversity. There appears to be a correlation, however strong or weak, between an imperial past and a multicultural present.

Ironic, Isn’t It?

I think I found an answer to Trump’s question, “Why don’t more people from Norway want to move to the United States?”

https://www.complex.com/…/norwegian-university-coronavirus-…

Over the weekend of March 14th, a Norwegian university called out the United States healthcare system in a message that was intended for their students who had traveled abroad. In a message strongly recommending those students come home due to the coronavirus’ global spread, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology wrote: “NTNU strongly recommends that all NTNU students who are outside Norway return home. This applies especially if you are staying in a country with poorly developed health services and infrastructure and/or collective infrastructure, for example the USA.”

Kinda puts the POTUS’ remarks about Africa into a certain perspective, doesn’t it?

Authoritarians, Not People Who Love liberty, like Trump

I came to a realization a few months ago: most of the vitriol and insults and unwillingness to concede our opponents might have something to teach us is our fundamental inability to empathize with our fellow human beings; it is that simple.

Months before Donald Trump won the Republican nomination and then the U.S. Presidency, Matthew MacWilliams, a University of Massachusetts postdoctoral candidate, stumbled across a striking way of looking at a candidate who seemed to defy all the rules of politics.

His polling research had revealed that parenting styles were a powerful predictor of voter attitudes towards Trump. In particular, MacWilliams discovered that those who preferred authoritarian child-rearing approaches—who valued traits such as obedience and good behavior in their children over curiosity or independence—were much more likely to back Trump. Moreover, their support wasn’t strictly contingent on traditional party preferences. As MacWilliam’s polls showed, authoritarian parenting preferences can be found among both Republicans and Democrats.

To further confirm his hypothesis, he also looked at correlations between those with authoritarian outlooks and more specific political views, such as attitudes towards the protection of minorities, terrorism and immigration. The results further confirmed the distinct alignment of values and politics that allowed Trump to win over working-class Midwesterners, religious South¬erners and even some affluent younger people, among them voters who might have balked at his positions on LBGTQ+ rights or looked askance at his behavior.

Extracted from Michael Adams’ Could It Happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit.

The Problem of Short-sighted Conservatism

The following is based upon a quote taken from Robert Wright’s “What is America”.

George Orwell once likened the British nation to a family with the wrong members in charge.

In America the “wrong members”—-the Bushes, Reagan, Nixon and, more recently Trump, have compromised America’s founding ideals of fair play and the rule of law—seem to get hold of the nation about once every third or fourth presidential term, the time it takes for memory to fade and a crook or an incompetent to mature by the glow of nostalgia into a statesman.

The great risk in a democracy is that voters might actually choose tyranny over liberty. You will get your conservative judges appointed by Trump who overturn Roe v. Wade or put immigrants in their place, but be careful: that slope can become extra-slippery as a host of other laws, ones you did not intend to be changed, get overturned, as well.

A country survives and thrives when it’s people cease thinking in narrow tribal terms and instead look at things in national and democratic ones. Sometimes the enemy of the people is the people. This risk is probably higher in the age of the sound bite, the televangelist, Fox News and the politics of fear than it ever has been…

Here’s a thought…

The same methods used to discover gravitational waves are used for climate science.

Here’s a thought: why aren’t conservatives denying gravitational waves? Might it have something to do with the absence of an anti-gravitational wave lobby?

Filter Bubbles

When I was a kid in the 1970s and 80s, I had access to three television and maybe a couple radio channels. New information usually came in the form of asking a well-educated and well-read father questions or cracking open a book and reading for myself. Since information was funneled through a narrow channel, odds were good I shared a similar frame of reference of what was happening in the world with basically everyone else. There was certainly misinformation and disinformation 30-40 years ago; however, it was nothing like what it is today.

Today we have so much more choice: there are thousands of television channels, dozens of streaming services, and several billion websites covering every conceivable subject. Ironically, I think I actually had more “choice” back in the 80s: when you and I conduct an identical Internet search using Google for, say, like “climate change” you might get a list of sites “proving” it is a hoax while I’ll receive hits for websites confirming it as fact. Why the disconnect?

Filter bubbles.

Google, Facebook, Amazon, Yahoo, and so on, only send me information which reflects my online activity used to create a “digital avatar” of me. They know I accept the scientific consensus on climate change; thus, when I want to look up related information they send me in the direction of www.scientificamerican.com. Another person by contrast might be sent to www.climatechangehoax.net or some such equivalent. Both of us get a shot of dopamine as our worldviews are confirmed. These tech giants curate and filter what information you receive and what I do not and vice versa; it is no longer to share a frame of reference because everyone exists in their own little Truman World.

This is making it increasingly difficult to engage in meaningful and constructive dialogue with people online because we do not share the same frame of reference. Instead, you have a set of facts, I have a set of facts, that person over there has their own, etc. Democracy in large part relies heavily upon the presence of informed citizens. I can’t think of any greater danger to democracy than the internet: people visiting a site like CNN can literally watch video footage of Trump mimicking/mocking a disabled reporter during a speech; you can see the video for yourself; and then people watching FOX believe Trump when he says he never mocked the man.

2 + 2 apparently equals 5.

I think we owe it to one another, you and I, to be discerning and skeptical when using the Internet. Be aware that the Internet is less an “information highway” and more of an “information wilderness” (and all that implies).

What can we do to build awareness and break free of filter bubbles? Well, so long as you’re consuming digital media you’ll never entirely break free; however, you can develop better metacognition. Metacognition literally means “to think about what one thinks about” or “to be aware of one’s own thoughts”. The best education teaches a person not to find the right answers but seek out the right questions to ask:

Is my judgement compromised in any way by either motivated reasoning or confirmation bias?

Did I go into this search with my mind already made up or am I genuinely willing to change my mind and go where the evidence actually takes me?

Do I know everything about this topic? Is it possible a person could disagree with me and be equally reasonable and have something to teach me?

Do I argue to learn or to win?

Do I listen with charity and ask questions for clarity rather than build and attack straw men?

Is this or that news source or political leader that amazing that they’d never make an error or exaggerate or lie?

Do I believe in something more than I understand it?

We are all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts.

Sapere aude.

Trump Wins, America Loses

The impeachment proceedings are all but over. The verdict: Mr. Trump remains President. I am happy for my conservative friends–this is a “win” for them. I wonder, though: the win comes at what cost? The rule of law was not easily established (and, it seems, today it is not widely understood). The dysfunction in the American political system–where parties vote on the basis of origins as opposed to opinions–is a recipe for failure in the long term. We need to place our faith in principles, not people.

montesquieu

Baron de Montesquieu was an exemplary legal scholar and jurist. He wrote about the importance of the role limits played in preserving liberty. Liberty does not consist in citizens possessing unlimited freedom. Liberty, Montesquieu argues, is the right to do “whatever the laws permit”. The Constitution provides a description of what a President can and cannot do.

I have had some interesting conversations with friends about this topic. Something one of my good friends said recently stuck with me. He said “[the] President cannot do whatever they want; they’re limited by the Constitution“. The problem, though, is the President did indeed do “whatever he wanted”: he leveraged Ukraine’s need for weapons to fight Russia in exchange for information on a political rival, Joe Biden. Trump used the office of the President for personal gain; and this is neither the first (e.g. he has violated the “emoluments clause” of the Constitution a half dozen times) nor will it be the last. If this action does not qualify as a “high crime and misdemeanor [sic]” then I don’t know what does. An outside observer would be forgiven for concluding that it seems anything is permitted in the American context.

If a citizen can do what the law forbids, Montesquieu observes, that citizen no longer possesses liberty: this is because all of his fellow-citizens would possess that self-same power to do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, to whomever they wanted. This is the basis for the rule of caprice, not the foundation for the rule of law. The rule of law makes necessary the limitation of executive power to prevent any single individual from becoming lord over the rest.

What was the point of the 1776 Revolution, when the Americans broke ties with Mother England, if they were simply going to replace a King with a would-be king/CEO…?

The Challenge of So-called “Fake News”

When the printing press appeared in West back in the 1500s, it had a revolutionary effect: ideas no longer had to be remembered but could be stored permanently; also, ideas became more widely available as economic growth meant more people could afford books (which became much more abundant because they were much cheaper to produce). Growth in literacy levels, and the emergence of a reading culture, ultimately helped encourage a series of transformational movements ranging from the Renaissance to the Protestant Revolution and the Scientific Revolution to the Enlightenment. Books, in a word, encouraged an intellectual and cultural transformation of Western society.

Books, quite unlike websites, are costly to produce and publish: books cost money whereas anyone with an Internet connection and an email can literally create a blog for free almost instantly; publishing companies go to great lengths vetting (fact checking) claims made by authors of books and the sources they use, i.e. writers making false claims potentially open up a publishing company to lawsuits. Thus, sources are checked and factual claims confirmed by an appeal to evidence. Websites, unlike books, are produced by everybody—by people ranging from genuine experts to tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theorists. Websites, like books, increase public exposure to new ideas: the problem is not all ideas are equal. Some sites are created by people who make claims to expertise (but who are not experts in anything); some are created to deliberately deceive readers. Add to the mix the uniquely human tendency of readers seeking out only those websites confirming existing beliefs, as opposed to sites challenging them, and it becomes easy to appreciate why groups like the Flat Earth Society gain adherents. Human beings by and large tend to be motivated reasoners[1] subject to confirmation bias[2] thereby becoming too easily “useful idiots”.[3]

Now not all books published before the arrival of the Internet were necessarily good or trustworthy (far from it). Yet the discipline, time and expense of producing a book tended to separate the wheat (the good stuff) from the chaff (the not so good). Not so with the Internet. Aside from a few scientific journals, and online newspapers, there is little quality control or accountability. In other words, the Internet is a not so much an information-highway as it is an information-wilderness where readers—some better than others—are left to themselves to figure out what is true and what is false.

This would not be a problem if people tended to make decisions based on an appeal to reason; however, quite the opposite is true: studies in cognitive psychology demonstrate people tend to think in, and interpret the reliability of a source, through appeals to emotion.[4] Democratic societies depend heavily upon informed citizens. Thus, ready access to trustworthy information is absolutely vital to the healthy functioning of liberal societies like Canada’s and the United States. But democracy is currently in retreat virtually everywhere in the West.[5]

The causes of this retreat are varied and complex; nonetheless, a major factor contributing to a demonstrated decline in tolerance and an increase in, say, a phenomenon like white nationalism is the public’s declining confidence in the trustworthiness of news sources. The frequency a phrase like “fake news”[6] gets used by both politicians in speeches, and average people on social media, reflects this declining trust. While websites do exist deliberately producing fake news, not all sources of information are untrustworthy. But how do we tell the difference between legitimate sources/claims and illegitimate ones? And, just as important, what can we do to arrest and turn back the growth in anti-democratic sentiment?

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[1] Motivated reasoning: phenomenon studied in cognitive science and social psychology that uses emotionally-biased reasoning to produce justifications or make decisions that are most desired rather than those that are most logical, while still reducing cognitive dissonance.

[2] Confirmation bias: is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or strengthens one’s prior personal beliefs or hypotheses. It is a type of cognitive bias.

[3] Useful idiots: a useful idiot is a derogatory (negative) term to describe a person perceived to be supporting a cause without fully comprehending the cause’s goals, and who is cynically used by a cause’s leaders for influence.

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4128497/

[5] https://intpolicydigest.org/2019/08/06/a-global-retreat-from-democracy/

[6] The phrase “fake news” is problematic: the term is used and misused so often it’s become virtually meaningless. For example when President Donald Trump was criticized for mocking a physically challenged reporter the President denied the accusation calling it “fake news”. The problem is the President’s interaction with the reporter was caught on tape. This is one of literally hundreds of incidents Trump has called “fake” while evidence exists to the contrary. This phrase is used, more or less, to simply silence critics or deflect criticism, i.e. if reporter X says something politician Y does not like then Y simply denies it calling it fake. Thus, it appears facts which are “inconvenient” are “fake” (while remaining fact).