By Leslee Kulba- The shelves of books on current events at the local bricks-and-mortar are a tad macabre. One can select from titles like The Death of Truth, by Michiko Kakutani; The Death of Common Sense, by Philip Howard; The Assault on Intelligence, by Michael Hayden, and War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence, by Ronan Farrow.
A couple of those books, in turn, refer the reader to The Death of Expertise, by Tom Nichols. At least a couple of the titles suggest that, because truth is a casualty, the nation is at war. The war, however, would not one of blows, but of words – at least for now.
The Death of Truth is a curious little book, packaged like something one would pick up at a Hallmark store, and it reads somewhat like an annotated bibliography. The author, a Pulitzer-winning literary critic, begins on shaky ground but concludes boldly. Kakutani’s thesis is, to borrow from Charles Mackay’s dark and dreadful work, “extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds” are being weaponized to defeat the Enlightenment bedrock of fact and reason underpinning free societies.
[REVIEWER’S NOTE: At least one person was angry that the reviewer had even handled Ben Sasse’s Them. The complainant lodged Sasse was a Never-Trumper, and that should have settled that. For the record, Sasse does not self-identify as a Never-Trumper, and, while others have cast on him the label, accepting that appellation would go against his own advice. First, Sasse is a Christian, and being ever against any child of God would equate to denying the Redemption. Secondly, Sasse challenges people to get out of their information bubbles and read what “others” are reading before, as Kakutani warns, the Russian strategy of driving wedges turns cracks into fissures.]
Then, as if tapping that divisive wedge, Kakutani criticizes Trump for intentions Republicans of any stripe can appreciate, like deregulation, entitlement reform, and repeal-and-replace. She further holds up Al Gore as a messenger of truth. Her poster children of wingnut Conservative ideologies include Creationism and climate change, which, according to her, deny settled science.
Thirty years ago, students would read books like Steven M. Stanley’s New Evolutionary Timetable and debate evidence challenging the cut-and-dry theory presented in texts. Climate was subject to fluctuations attributable to roughly ten-year solar cycles and not to be confused with daily weather. Models, not warming trends, predicted calamity.
Most importantly, around the seventh grade, children learned that science was an asymptotic approach to discovery that proceeded by disproving hypotheses. Nothing could ever be proven. Empiricism runs the experiment, and it does not, as Galileo’s inquisitors, appeal to authority, as in, “thus saith Aristotle.” And, just as science is not authoritarian, it is not democratic. Therefore, regardless of what Gore says or if 99% of scientists have formed a consensus; real, Baconian scientists will question popular theories in order to refine them – and run the experiments.
Digging in deeper, Kakutani says Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead is one of Trump’s favorite books. That’s funny. An oft-repeated criticism of the president is that he doesn’t read, that he’s too self-assured about having his finger on the pulse of the economy and foreign affairs to sit through traditional presidential briefings. Reporters used to note an absence of books in his spaces, and the only books typically associated with him are the ones he co-authored and the book of Hitler’s speeches his ex-wife Ivana claimed he kept by the bed.
When claims contradicted in the old school, it was a call for all to check their premises. Perhaps Kakutani, like so many others, rather than reading Rand page-by-page heard the title of her book, The Virtue of Selfishness, and went no further. The clever irony was surely not lost on the author. While all can appreciate the Polynesian proverb, “When you help your neighbor’s boat to shore, lo and behold, your boat comes to shore also;” there is also the angle of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. Ambitious capitalist investors like Mitt Romney have more to give to charity than the kid sitting on a stump.
Two things spared Kakutani’s book from the same treatment she gave Rand: (1) Sasse cautioned against hiding from challenging viewpoints. After all, emotion picks up where reason leaves off, and it would be better to strengthen the defenses of one’s own hypotheses alone with a book than on one’s feet with an agitator. (2) Kakutani was strongly echoing the claims of Hayden and many others on the bookseller’s shelves.
Hayden’s resume includes service as a four-star general in the USAF and director of the NSA and CIA. An adage older than dirt goes, “The first rule of espionage is, ‘Never trust a spy.’” Yet Hayden, like former FBI director James Comey in A Higher Loyalty, speaks of the intelligence community as seeking truth. To clarify, they’re not talking about cloak-and-dagger psyops so much as the agency’s role in figuring out what hostile foreign agents are really up to before innocents get hurt.
During the 2016 campaign season, a “source,” explained why Wikileaks was supporting worthy and crackpot causes, among which were Brexit, Kurdish secession, and the breakup of California. The source said Julian Assange does Putin’s bidding, and Putin likes to divide people into groups small enough for easy conquest. Division and chaos were achieved through supporting, or making up, extremist groups of opposing stripes, and fueling them to a fever pitch with spun or outright false narratives.
With technology, this fairly old strategy has been simplified. Instead of infiltrating groups and going to meetings, organizations like the Internet Research Agency, one of three indicted in the Mueller investigation, set up troll farms.
The influence organization employed hundreds. Some designed memes and crafting messages for social media. Others, using fake accounts, amplified divisive rhetoric with retweets and likes. The campaign operation, begun in 2014, attacked Rubio and Cruz in the primaries, and supported anything but Hillary in the general election. One Twitter troll purge cost the president 300,000 followers.
Described as the miracle of misinformation or the largest washroom wall in the world, the Internet short-circuits institutional filters like peer reviews and publishers. It has democratically leveled the playing field so one hack’s fantasy now enjoys equal standing with decades of skilled and careful research. As a result, people are having to hone skills of critical thinking they’d abdicated to credentialed editors. The problem today is not censorship, but too much information.
There is so much information that news junkies who while away the hours consuming only carefully-vetted reports need never be exposed to what people in the other political party are reading. Consequently, traditionally amicable political rivalry and spirited debate now resemble something on the verge of tribal warfare. It’s happening because algorithms used by search engines and social media try to feed users information and advertisements consistent with their browsing history.
Somebody researching hearing aids who takes a break to check what Trump is doing is likely to Google into, “Does Trump Use a Hearing Aid?” People with similar browsing backgrounds end up reading the same newsfeeds, and that puts them in what industry analysts call the same “filter bubble.”
This might be fine, if everybody were using the web to find hymns of praise and pictures of unicorns. Unfortunately, something worse is going on. Advertisers, who profit off clicks, as well as Russian political influencers, know that, as Hayden describes it, “People tend to react more to inputs that land low on the brainstem. Fear and anger produce a lot more engagement and sharing than joy.”
The Internet, once an empowering tool for collaborative research and discovery, is now a Frankenstein’s monster, putting people in information silos on the basis of shared enragement. Coming out of holiday dinners, many may feel the only thing all Americans share anymore is frustration over trying to discuss policy on the basis of mutually-exclusive subsets of facts.
This is not a call to bring back the referees of speech, religion, and press. More freedom, exercised responsibly, has always been a good thing. The genie is out of the bottle, and it’s possible future generations will view delegating one’s vetting responsibilities as brutish and repressive.
Nor is it a call to roll back technology. Both Hayden and Farrow accept that technology is changing the institutions that have traditionally made America strong. Why send diplomats when there’s email? Why send spies when there are satellites? And why bother with either when there are so many bureaucrats in so many agencies generating too many reports to process?
A true diplomat, Farrow argues the planet needs more people-to-people interaction. He cites Cicero, “There are two types of military dispute, the one settled by negotiation and the other by force. Since the first is characteristic of human beings and the second of beasts, we must have recourse to the second only if we cannot exploit the first.”
Besides, Republics have fallen in the past, and not because of Russian troll farms. Kakutani is more wary of social movements based on the hypothesis that it depends on what is-is; for example, Dianetics and postmodernism.
America’s tolerance for different perspectives has been distorted to include acceptance of alternative facts. Whereas it used to be a safe bet to say, “It can’t happen here,” Americans are now seeing peers – never themselves – condoning political rhetoric reminiscent of the bewildering mindset widespread in the USSR: People “believed” their talking heads, even when their talking heads contradicted themselves and tangible sensory input. It may just be that the majority would rather be wrong and belong than be right and fight.