Since last November’s election, we have been working diligently to gauge the shift in our country’s politics and understand the implications. It has not been easy. It reminds me of my first attempts at surfing many years ago off Ocean Beach. Choppy sets, short board – for three days I tumbled about, determined to stand up for more than a couple of seconds before getting my sinuses cleaned out again.
This effort to find something solid to stand upon as we get tossed around by a seemingly endless barrage of unprecedented actions on behalf of our nation’s elected leadership, has led me to the following: Be mindful of what you can control and work diligently to help make the world a better place. One of those things we can control is how we relate to others and how we share our perspective of the world.
On his radio program To the Point in late April, Warren Olney discussed the role of media in an era where facts and truth (not to mention science itself) are under attack. While for many, the ways in which we gather, process and integrate information have not changed with current political circumstances, the individuals and institutions that present and evaluate facts – namely scientists, the media, and the courts – have been ridiculed and demonized and are even considered the enemy by a not insignificant proportion of the population.
We have a vocal cohort of our fellow citizens who appear willing to believe whatever they are told and are compelled to act upon those delusions regardless of demonstrable fact. And in a crisis for those who believe our elected leaders should be role models, we have a president who claims to be above the law, who impugns all challengers, who isolates himself from all critical thought, and who blames everyone but himself when things go wrong. Whether his actions are intentional or not, he is leading a movement to discredit the Enlightenment itself – the rationalism upon which our Constitution and western democracies throughout the world are based.
So, we must ask, how do we deal with this overt challenge to our historical roots and fundamental values? How do we address multiple instances where elected officials make policy decisions that completely disregard incontrovertible evidence from numerous independent sources? And how do we react rationally when irrational decisions seem to be more common every day?
Can we recover the truth and the processes by which we determine fact from fiction and reclaim our ability to recognize and resist demagoguery and propaganda? Can our country be repaired when significant numbers of Americans believe they are the victims of any number of conspiracies perpetrated by their fellow citizens? Can we break the cycle of violence being perpetuated by misinformed and apparently unstable individuals in our midst? It won’t be easy and it will probably become even more political (and sadly, more violent) before we can once again proclaim that we are indeed a United States and that we are committed to having credible, reliable and valid information as the basis of our civil discourse and public policy.
As one of Olney’s guests, Eli Pariser, from Upworthy, emphasized during the April 19th broadcast, we can’t control the ways people consume information, but we can change the ways in which that information is framed and served up. Specifically, we have to address the concept of schema, which is the framework upon which we hang our understanding of a given concept or issue.
In the case of “competing” versions of the truth, where one side presents factual information and the other maligns those facts, ignores them, or makes up their own “facts” to support their own perspective, we need to change the schema altogether rather than continue to restate the evidence in an effort to argue a particular point of view. Parroting Pariser once again, let’s say one side says Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks and the other side says he did. If we keep repeating “there is no factual evidence to support the conclusion that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with 9/11,” we set up the back and forth we often hear on the elementary school playground – yes he did, no he didn’t – because the way we frame the issue constructs a bias that implicitly links Hussein to the 9/11 attacks.
To combat the delusion that Hussein had any connection to the 9/11 attacks, we need to change the schema and reframe the issue altogether. Continuing with Pariser’s example, we would eliminate the bias that Hussein was involved in 9/11 by saying something to the effect that “the 9/11 hijackers were almost all from Saudi Arabia, except for three people, two of whom were from Egypt and the other from the UAE.”
Regardless of political leanings, it is imperative we develop a strategic response to ongoing efforts to undermine the truth or ignore factual evidence. As we were all taught prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, propaganda is not only persuasive, it is pervasive, and we must constantly guard against its sinister effects.
To allow propaganda and false information to guide our actions and our policy reminds me of the slow-building hysteria in Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s tragic novel, The Oxbow Incident, where groupthink replaces sound judgment. Crafting policy based on beliefs that ignore solid research will likely lead to horrible outcomes that will affect us all for generations to come. A good example of how uninformed policy can create highly undesirable, if not damaging, outcomes is evidence that abstinence-only education programs may actually lead to significantly higher rates of teen pregnancy in communities than where more comprehensive reproductive education programs are in place. Another study demonstrates that carefully crafted policies to keep firearms from high-risk individuals can lead to decreased rates of gun violence; however, public discussion and in particular, public policy in many states has not reflected the scientific conclusions brought to light by this research.
Beyond the public policy arena, when the abuse of facts leads to dangerous narratives emphasizing victimhood and the suggestion that people must fight to preserve their misinformed views (see Newt Gingrich’s op-ed to see how far some people seem willing to go), we set up a situation that will guarantee our collective marginalization or worse. These efforts to divide us (see Jill Lepore’s May 30th comment in The New Yorker) are not leading the world or our nation to a better place; rather, emphasizing differences continues to divide global populations and concentrate resources in the hands of the already-powerful.
And dividing us only distracts us from the real problems we need to address both as a nation and as a community of global citizens: the demand on public resources as 70 million baby boomers begin collecting Medicare and Social Security benefits; the overwhelming consequences of climate change; the compounding costs of health care; the destabilizing influence of wealth and income inequality; the need to invest $2 trillion over the next ten years to upgrade outdated infrastructure in the U.S.; and the debilitating effect of nearly $1.2 trillion in student loan debt for over 40 million Americans, among other challenges. While we are driven to debate the “truth” by the dissemblers who would see our problems “solved” by the covenant of the free market or through outright denial, we gift the problems we’ve created or ignored to our children and grandchildren. And continuing to allow “whataboutism” to permeate our discourse, we abrogate the mantle of leadership and open the door for others to dictate our future.
We cannot move forward while we continue to be ensnared by propaganda. And we cannot allow ourselves to be convinced that our differences are insurmountable or allow anyone to demonize those with whom we disagree. We will not make progress in this divided state; rather, by not challenging at every turn the false narrative of victimhood and oppression for the most privileged nation on the face of the earth, we allow ourselves to be co-opted like the Germans who failed to recognize the Holocaust that occurred in their midst. We must combat misinformation by changing the schema – directing the conversation to the issues at hand and generating a common narrative based on a mutual understanding of credible, reliable and valid information.
The U.S. financial markets have, for the time being at least, reacted positively to Trump’s authoritarian approach and his Truman Show presidency. His promises to revise the tax code, eliminate financial and environmental regulations, spend heavily on the military, curb immigration, reinstate “law and order” and promote more domestic energy production have inspired the markets as the U.S. economy continues to recover from the depths of the Great Recession and even as his regressive trade and immigration policies seem to promise economic contraction.
Nevertheless, we must remember the market is notoriously fickle and a large percentage of the population either remains or perceives themselves on the margins. In addition, the Cyclically Adjusted Price to Earnings (CAPE) ratio is still pegged above 29 compared to a historical mean of 16.76 and there are strong indications the U.S. stock market is overvalued relative to historical measures. (See a discussion by John Hussman in his May 29th market commentary about historical valuations). And with an increasingly uncertain political future in the U.S., we must continue to be proactive financially, whether that means safeguarding emergency reserves, making sure budgets are being managed appropriately, and keeping a close eye on future needs in order to manage our resources diligently. As many have discovered, there are also opportunities that work to incorporate environmental, social, and governance factors into one’s investment decisions that proactively work to address public health and environmental issues and that can mitigate risk and have positive impacts on corporate financial performance as well.
As we’ve all heard before, there are no guarantees, whether they pertain to our financial interests, our democratic institutions or our ability to create the world we want to see. We must remain personally vigilant and committed to the people and purposes we hold dear. As the comic book hero Superman once said, we must stand up for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” and proclaim our fundamental human virtues – Integrity, Empathy, and a Can-do spirit.
To stay ahead of the forces that would destroy the truths upon which our society rests, we need to change the conversation entirely. We cannot allow ourselves to continue to be distracted by the bright shiny objects that our 45th President sputters in his late-night tirades or to let the latest tragedy inspired by increasing social dislocation prevent us from seeking greater understanding of our fellow citizens. Instead, we need to find the common ground we all share and reconnect with those with whom we disagree one person at a time until we rediscover the foundational truths we live by and why evidentiary knowledge is so important to our survival as a society. And we must believe in tomorrow despite its uncertainty, if for no other reason than to commit to the future we envision for our children and grandchildren.