Fighting Back

In order to preserve and protect a long-living, thriving democracy, citizens need to do some basic philosophical thinking. It’s simpler than you might imagine, but not so simple tImage result for PHILOSOPHYhat people do it well, or often. But it is an essential part of a continued effort to improve our democratic civilization, which can, if we allow it to happen, regress and possibly devolve into something disabling, beyond healing.

Philosophers often start by defining terms. So, let me start by defining philosophy. The best, most concise definition I ever read was this: Philosophy is the critical evaluation of the facts of experience. When you strip away all the fancy talk and fancy philosophers, it’s pretty much that simple. But how many people actually practice such basic philosophy, which is necessary to keep our long but always-endangered democratic experiment going? How many actually evaluate, critically, the facts of their experience? As November 8 taught us, not enough.

And that is, first, where journalism comes in. Despite an ever increasing distrust of the media complex, and despite an ever increasing turn to other forms of information gathering and sharing, it still remains the job of journalists to help people, often busy people with little time for in-depth analysis, to evaluate what is going on in the world. Journalists can and should counter all the fake and propagandistic news out there not just with genuine fact-heavy news, but with genuine fact-heavy news that contains within it some basic interpretations of those facts. It is necessary to interpret elements of the news because people otherwise might misinterpret them out of ignorance or, more likely, confirmation bias. If journalists don’t do this basic analysis, albeit do it very carefully, they are simply stenographers who wasted all their time in college getting an education and are not serving the public good.

Image result for alex jonesAs we all know, Trump believes in ridiculous conspiracies. He counted conspiracy nutjob Alex Jones as a friend of his campaign and now counts him as a friend of his presidency to come. Jones, a radio man who runs a fake-news website called Infowars, thinks those six-year-old kids killed at Sandy Hook were just part of a grand hoax. He thinks the moon landings were faked. He thinks 9/11 was an “inside job.” You get the idea. He’s nuts. But Trump contacted him after the election to thank his twisted listeners “for standing up for this Republic.” We’ve never had a president intellectually dull enough to both believe an extremist like Alex Jones is reasonable and believe it is okay to let us all know he thinks an extremist like Alex Jones is reasonable. It’s a different world now, and the rules for covering Trump, and the strange movement he has inspired, have to change.

A good start appears to be what the Associated Press—which didn’t exactly shine during the election season—is doing. John Daniszewski, Vice President of Standards for the AP, seems to have at least learned something. In a recent article addressed to his journalists (“Writing about the ‘alt-right’”), he wrote:

“ARelated imagelt-right” (quotation marks, hyphen and lower case) may be used in quotes or modified as in the “self-described” or “so-called alt-right” in stories discussing what the movement says about itself.

Avoid using the term generically and without definition, however, because it is not well known and the term may exist primarily as a public-relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience. In the past we have called such beliefs racist, neo-Nazi or white supremacist.

He tells reporters writing stories involving the “alt-right” that they should define the term either as,

“an offshoot of conservatism mixing racism, white nationalism and populism,” or, more simply, “a white nationalist movement.”

Daniszewski ends his message to his reporters this way:

Finally, when writing on extreme groups, be precise and provide evidence to support the characterization.

We should not limit ourselves to letting such groups define themselves, and instead should report their actions, associations, history and positions to reveal their actual beliefs and philosophy, as well as how others see them.

This is refreshing and it appears to be catching on. Perhaps it represents the beginning of a necessary adjustment on the part of the press, in response to some of the extremists Trump has emboldened, not to mention one he has promoted to be his chief strategist in the White’s House. But that’s not all the adjustment needed. Trump, in addition to being a sucker for conspiracies and a rewarder of those who will praise him, also has a problem
telling the truth. He has no respect for it. He will say anything that he thinks serves his interests at the time, even if it is clearly, provably adonald-fantasies lie. And journalists must change their reporting and writing approach in order to confront this weird reality, which is unlike anything they have ever covered or we have ever seen.

A recent example of what that change should look like is in how some, but not all, outlets came to characterize, in the headlines of their stories, Trump’s ridiculous claim (promoted by, who else, Alex Jones on Infowars) that millions of illegal votes kept him from winning the popular vote. Needless to say—but say it we all should as often as it takes—the claim is false. A few headline writers got it right the first time, but some, like Politico, initially just framed it, “Trump claims millions voted illegally.” Later, after much outrage online and in social media, the word “falsely” appeared in front of “claims.” The initial non-interpretative headline represents Before Trump journalism. The last interpretative headline represents After Trump journalism. This is 2016 A.T. and journalists need to appropriately adjust to the new calendar, especially headline writers and those who post story alerts on social media. Many Americans only skim the headlines of some major stories and those headlines should convey as much truth as possible.

But it’s not enough for journalists to change. We, as ordinary citizens, have to change too. We can’t assume that all or most of our family members, friends, neighbors, colleagues, or the people we run into online or elsewhere, are navigating through these times in boats of rationality. Some of them don’t have such a boat, or haven’t bothered to move their boat from the dock. Some have a leaky boat. We have to figure out who is who and figure out how to talk to them, how to reason with them, how to counter the misinformation some of civilization-needs-youthem hold in their heads—or promote on their Facebook page—as truth. That all might sound arrogant and condescending, but it is absolutely necessary in these times.

During personal encounters that involve the mention of politics or policy, or on Facebook and Twitter and other platforms where such is discussed, we have to now become tireless purveyors of facts and good analysis, as well as shoot down every piece of propaganda or string of falsehoods we see. We have to become soldiers. We can’t just expect journalists to do all the work. Many of them will simply not do it or will fall short—and we have to let them know when they fail—and the good ones who will do it right can’t make a difference if their good work is not amplified by us. We must become good journalism’s megaphone.

We, as citizens protecting and attempting to advance our civilization, have to get in the fight ourselves and do our part. And for most of us, doing our part these days means cleaning up messes that are often first made on the Internet. We can talk to people. We can respond to blogs or begin our own. We can comment on stories on news sites. We can post and counter-post on social media. Like it or not, that’s where a lot of folks get their information about the world, and we have to be there to make sure they are getting good information, first—and this is essential—by getting good information ourselves, and then passing it on.

This aggressive posture will not often bear fruit. Most people, we have to understand from the start, will not change their minds in response to the facts or to basic, common-sense analysis. They seek out and listen only to bias-confirming sources and opinion. But we have to keep going, have to keep at it. Some will be open to change, especially as time goes by and Trump’s potential decisions become real ones. The landscape will look different when he is actually responsible for governing, and some people will then be willing to listen, willing to reevaluate, especially as he disappoints them by not getting done what he promised or doing exactly the opposite of what he promised. That is why we have to keep up with and address what Trump is actually doing, as opposed to only calling out how scary a person he is as he is doing it.

john-saul-quoteAnd we must also understand that this aggressive posture in cyberspace and elsewhere will cause us all some problems, lose us some “friends.” But picking any side in a fight loses you something. And not choosing to fight may cause us to lose a firm and rational grip on the best thing human beings have ever created: democratic civilization and democratic civilization. We will, if Trump doesn’t get us all killed, hand our children and grandchildren something when this is all over, and I at least want to say I fought like hell to hand them something they will be proud of.

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14 Comments

  1. Very well said, my friend. I must also add something from my own experience. I think I fell prey to the “echo chamber” effect during the election. I did not pay close enough attention to those who disagreed with my position, mostly because those who disagreed were frequently abusive and hard (for me, at least) to give credence to or really listen to. I believe that the leaders of the left may have made the same mistake, and were not aware enough of the true differences of opinion. Clearly, that lack of knowledge contributed to the outcome.

    I was only listening to those who held similar views to my own, thus did not understand the other points of view – more accurately, I understood, their views, but did not understand how widely-held those views were, and maybe how intense they were. That was a mistake, because not appreciating the breadth and depth of those views lead me to dismiss them, rather than understand and deal with them. I did try to have “reasonable” (to me, at least) conversations with some who held vastly different views, but nothing came of that but anger and vitriol. I dismissed that effort with the thought that “you can lead a horse to water….” and so forth. That, too, I think, was a mistake.

    I am uncertain how to deal with people who hold strongly opposing views and are not open to “reasonable” discussion, but I am realtively certain that the conversation starts with listening and understanding their views, even if you clearly state that you do not agree with them. I think that everyone wants to be heard, and meaningful conversations must start with that principle. Those conversations may not go anywhere – so pick up and start again with someone else. Just do not give up, or as brother Duane says above, democracy and civilization may suffer greatly. Be the change; model the behavior you want to see. In my experience, that is really hard to do, but is the only path to real change.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Michael,

      I appreciate your honesty. Refreshing. Forgive the length of this reply, but you made me reflect.

      You got it right when you said it is hard to model “the behavior you want to see.” I admit I have been guilty of poor modeling at times. We want elections to be rational undertakings, but, as this one proved beyond a doubt, elections are mostly emotional. Those of us close to this stuff get caught up in it in that way because our feelings, more than anything else, are at the end totally invested in one side or the other. Our emotions are often based on tribal cohesion, but some may be based on rational examination of the case—like the fact that Clinton’s actual policies would have benefited those working-class folks who ended up voting for Trump. Whatever the case, reason gives way to frustration at our inability to get people to see what appears to us to be so obvious.

      I have found, not to boast in any way because I deserve no credit for it, that my trajectory has been rather unusual. I was once an evangelical Christian. No more. Now I’m an agnostic. I was once a rock-hard conservative. No more. Now I am a liberal. I voted for Republicans all the time. No more. I vote for Democrats exclusively now. Given that rather abrupt about-face (although it took a period of years), I tend to hopefully think it is possible to change minds that seem unchangeable. But here’s what I have learned over the years: when dealing with people who have strong opinions, most of our time is wasted in trying to change minds through reasonable discussions. Most honest folks confident enough to express opinions think they are as right as we think we are. And they will figure out a way to reject most of your arguments, even if they have to stretch credulity to do so.

      I think most people are changed emotionally, then rational arguments are employed to defend the emotional switch. In some cases, something happens—say an act of violence against you or some other traumatic event—something emotionally momentous enough to start the change. Then comes the rationalizations (in both the positive and negative sense of that word) for the new outlook. In other cases, a series of smaller things happen that, after a time, start the change, ending in the same rationalizations for the new outlook. I fall mostly into the latter camp, in terms of how I came to see the world so differently than before.

      As a right-winger who got involved in my local union, I eventually ran into situations that demonstrated to me that my ideological positions weren’t compatible with my sympathies for the workers I was trying to represent. I realized that the very ideology I was wedded to intellectually was hurting the people I cared about, the people who needed defending. That, and always exposing myself to the best arguments from the other side (including especially religious arguments that went against my theology; my gradual change in religious thinking was a big part of the change in my political thinking), helped free me from what I now consider to be a mental straightjacket. That is why, as you suggest, one should not only listen to those who hold similar views to your own. But I do think it is important to routinely expose yourself to people who share your convictions, because we need the sense of belonging (more emotions!) that comes from such ideological fellowship. It’s just that we also need to get our feet wet in the waters on the other side from time to time because in the end it is the ideas themselves, good or bad, that matter and that will stand or fall after careful analysis.

      Having said all that, I may seem to contradict myself when I say that it is perfectly proper to dismiss certain people and certain points of view. There are some boundaries. People espousing racism are an obvious example, although it didn’t seem so obvious only a couple of generations ago. When dealing with such people and their opinions, the best tactical response is rejection, and if necessary, ridicule. Reasoning with such people won’t work and is almost always a waste of time. And I don’t feel a bit guilty about taking that stance, unless it is unnecessarily mean-spirited (it may be better to pity some folks for their inherited ignorance or intellectual deficiencies that support their bigotry). And I don’t feel guilty, from time to time, about returning invective against mean-spirited people who think their bullying will win them the day. Nope. No ideological bullying allowed. It must be confronted. 

      I’ve gone on too long, but I especially want to reiterate that you have it right about our own “echo chamber.” It’s unhealthy to feed on one kind of food for intellectual nourishment, even though, as I hinted at above, it is good sometimes to eat the things you like. Echo chambers, though, can make us fat if we don’t watch it. I know I run into people like that. In the past I have argued with people on the left who think I am too conservative on this or that issue (especially on my national security and foreign policy positions) because I don’t perfectly conform to the leftist norm. In other words, they don’t hear an echo from me. I have found that people on the left take reflexive positions in much the same way people on the right do (although there seems to be more of a tendency to do this on the right for some reason).  I am guilty of this, too, but try to check it again and again.

      Which leads me to finally say that I am doing some in-depth thinking about some of my own reflexes and some of my own conscious positions (something I often do but this stunning election has required more effort). I am examining whether I have carefully “evaluated the facts of my experience” in terms of this or that policy or this or that reaction to the other side’s arguments. I think it is healthy to do that, and I don’t think it betrays a weakness but a strength. Honestly examining other views is a good thing, because, as you say, “not appreciating the breadth and depth of those views lead me to dismiss them, rather than understand and deal with them.” Before we dismiss some idea, it should be obvious that we owe it to ourselves and others that we understand it first. And, who knows, understanding it may lead us to embracing it in whole or in part, or it may give us good reason to oppose it with the force necessary.

      Thanks again,

      Duane

       

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ben Field

     /  December 1, 2016

    Duane,

    A dear friend and union contractor, that passéd a few years ago, told me he appreciated my perseverance. When I expressed my fear to him that Obama would be assassinated by a James Earl Ray type of redneck, he said that I remind him of a Tom Petty’s song, and that I should remain true to its theme. When I am troubled, I remember my brother and listen to the song.

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    • Ben,

      Love that song! Perfect for the occasion! Petty wrote that with the great Jeff Lynne. Thanks for sharing it.

      Well I know what’s right
      I got just one life
      In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around
      But I’ll stand my ground
      And I won’t back down

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  3. Well said, both Duane and Michael.

    I have wondered, post-election, what my blue-collar father might have made of it. His parents divorced and his stepfather sent him to a “military school” in Oklahoma in 1906, whereupon at age 15 he cut himself loose in the world, escaping to fend for himself. He graduated the college of hard knocks.

    So far as I could tell, he was apolitical, although he occasionally let slip some evidence of the racism common in his society. He was a practical, rational man, and a very good, responsible man. He saw life as it was, not as he wished it were. He was a self-taught welder during WW II, but otherwise a worker on oil rigs, an industry that offered pretty good wages during boom times but no benefits or continuity during the lean. Boom and bust, financial uncertainty as a way of life. Looking back, I marvel at how well he cared for his family and how well he and my mother shielded me from the anxiety they they lived with.

    When you are simply trying to survive, you couldn’t care less who is running for office. Rationally, you know in your heart that your one vote will make zero difference in your life. That’s where education comes in, the education my father never got and the world-view he never achieved. If society is ever to repair itself from this damaging election, it must somehow do it while providing dignity and continuity to ordinary working people like him. The reason I have become a Democrat is because it is the party most likely to care about that goal, not the other one that measures status with no regard to privilege.

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    • Thanks, Jim. Nice thoughts about your father.

      One, among many, distressing things about this election is that a lot of talk has been focused on “ordinary working people” who voted for Trump because Democrats supposedly abandoned them in favor of minorities and urban-dwelling voters. Ha. The overwhelming number of minority voters are working people. They just aren’t white. And too many in the media look at those working class whites in Wisconsin and Ohio and Michigan and Pennsylvania like they define the working class. They don’t. They are a part of it, but not the whole thing. And, to make matters worse, Trump will do exactly nothing for them except lower taxes for their bosses, forcing taxes on the workers to go up in order to keep local and state governments running (after cuts in services, of course). Those taxes will be sales taxes, fees, etc. That’s the way it worked in Kansas, the model for what Trump/Ryan/McConnell have planned. And in the end, somehow Democrats will get blamed for it all because we can’t overcome the noise out there–from right-wing radio on all day and night and now Fox on TV and Breitbart and Drudge and trolls on the Internet–and get our message out.

      That’s why I urge all of us to get involved on platforms like Twitter and go against the noise. It’s really all people can do at this point, other than send money to the good guys in the organizational trenches.

      Duane

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      • Get involved in Twitter? It’s discouraging to think that 140-character opinions can be effective. Feels like he’s dragging us down to his level, a landscape of trolls and brain-farts. Ugh. But, you’re right about sales taxes being the go-to method of government funding, about as regressive as it gets. I suppose that Twitter might be useful in alerting the frog that the water is coming to a boil.

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  4. ansonburlingame

     /  December 1, 2016

    Duane,

    Good blog, Duane and good reflection Michael.

    The “best” definition I have read for philosophy is “Inquiry into how to live a good life”. By far the most understandable “philosophy” (for me) follows the Socratic Method, like taking one “logical” step after another that results in (trying) to eat an elephant one bite at a time. That is why Plato’s Republic was at least partially understandable for me. As well the Sermon on the Mount (I read it as philosophy as I do most parts of the Bible) provides very simple and basic things to TRY to do as one lives day to day.

    All of us are trying to figure out what makes Trump tick right now and all (most) are worried about what he will really “do”. For sure he “lied” through his teeth during the campaign and now must back off to a degree to actually try to govern, something he has NEVER done before. But then neither had Obama done much “governing” and even Obama “lied” (OK, spun a wonderful “tale”) before and and during his Presidency.

    Obama and Trump, for sure, have radically different “philosophy’s” at least in terms of how best to govern. And of course you and I have differing views as to the success or failure of Obama. But for the moment both of us can only guess as to what Trump WILL do.

    I am currently reading a “different” book. “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladmir Putin”, by Masha Gessen. Putin came out of nowhere to assume the Russian Presidency in 2000. The book ends in 2012 (thus leaves out current things such as Syria, Crimea, etc.). It provides some background on Putin from his childhood, early days in KGB, etc but primarily details “every bad thing ever said about Putin”. It is a politically motivated tirade written by a radical, Russian, former journalist that believes Russia should have leapt directly from almost a century under communism to a vibrant and fully functioning democratic society with all the wealth of capitalism but none of the baggage inherent in such a system.

    The book reads like an Elizabeth Warren critique of Trump at the end of an 8 year Trump presidency. Certainly the bias of the author must be taken into account as one delves through the gory details of lots of rumor, innuendo and “some” actual “facts” but not many for sure. Does Putin keep a ready supply of polonium on hand to put in the tea cup of every dissident in the world that opposes him? Clear answer in the book is a resounding Yes. Yet the Russian people “love him”.

    The author’s view of such “Russian people” sounds much like your critique of the 60 million people that voted for Trump, by the way.

    One other observation. I wrote of my interaction with two very successful men and their families over Thanksgiving. They also happen to be my two sons. Another commenter accused me of “boasting” of my sons. In fact what I did was reflect the views of two men, family ties being irrelevant, that are currently in the thick of the swamp of America and the larger world and how they were reacting to Trump and all the furor around our politics today. Right or wrong, their’s is an “interesting” point of view and at least to me have some credibility behind their views based on “success” in living their own lives.

    Gaden has it right (above), dead on the mark if you will. We all must listen better and gather all the information possible from people that we don’t fundamentally agree with as well as fellow travelers doing things we like to see. I don’t read and comment herein for any reason other than to try to understand, as best I can, the “liberal side” of arguments. If I wanted “serenity” I should never comment herein as well. Then you could have a “unanimous blog” with everyone agreeing that Obama was “one of our best” and Trump will be the absolute worse anyone can imagine. So much for political discourse when that happens and “you guys” can watch MSNBC while I watch only Fox, all of “us” patting ourselves on the back for being “right”!!

    Remember as well, Duane, I told you herein months ago that I was reading your blog again trying hard to find a reason to vote FOR Hillary. I got plenty or reasons NOT to vote for Trump, but I didn’t need you our “yours” to tell me that. In that sense you “failed” me in that I never could find a good reason to support Hillary, despite all the name calling, standard political rants, etc. against Trump.

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    • Anson,

      My problem with your definition of philosophy is that “good” (like other essential terms) is itself something that philosophy needs to examine. Just what is good? What is bad? Is Trump good? Is he bad? Does good entail the well-being of only ourselves? Or does it entail the well-being of all of us collectively? Or some complicated mix of the two? Heady questions. But I think I understand where you’re coming from.

      I don’t like, though, your comparison of Obama and Trump, in terms of inexperience. Obama knew how government works. He knew the Constitution (he actually taught it). He was familiar with the arguments surrounding government and how it is supposed to work. Trump’s only interaction with government was as someone trying to manipulate it for his own personal good, meaning $$$$. That’s very different from most people running for office, and it is a very dangerous pedigree for someone coming into the most powerful job in the world.

      As far as “guessing” what Trump will do, I don’t agree with that completely. Yes, there are areas where we are forced to guess (foreign policy, for instance) what he will do or not do. But there are areas where it is clear: He will enrich his family’s business holdings as best he can, while allowing Pence and Ryan and McConnell–and the philosophy they and other right-wingers represent–to enact their extremist domestic agenda. These folks want to roll back, if not overturn, the New Deal and its progeny. The only thing that can stop them will be a series of Democratic filibusters in the Senate, if McConnell doesn’t do away with that instrument altogether come January.

      I am surprised, and full of hope, that you have taken it upon yourself to read Ms. Gessen. I don’t know much about her, but I am pleased that you are reading someone who has written favorably of Pussy Riot, artists that some folks have put down as something of a joke, but who are quite seriously opponents of Putin’s vision of Russia (and the world). Gessen may be too much of an idealist for you, but given the circumstances and chaos of post-Soviet Russia, her ideals should not be ignored. I’m glad you are giving her a hearing. All of us need to examine the other side’s arguments, so long as they are arguments and not just predictable diatribes.

      As far as your two sons, I hope you don’t think I was accusing you of “boasting.” I think I understood your point in using them as examples of another point of view. The country is full of all kinds of opinions, and none, except the most bigoted, should be ignored. My only critique would be that your sons, obviously being in a privileged situation, might not fully appreciate how onerous and oppressive the oncoming Trump administration appears to others not so privileged.

      In terms of your seeking the “liberal side” of arguments, I am sorry I did not provide you with “a good reason to support Hillary.” I, apparently mistakenly, thought that emphasizing how unstable and dangerous a demagogue Trump was might be enough to make sober people realize how frightening it would be to put him in power, either by voting for him directly or by voting for him indirectly by wasting a vote on a third-party candidate. I guess I plead guilty to making that mistake. I know I pointed out to you and others that if it was policy proposals you wanted or needed, there was more than you could absorb on Hillary’s campaign website. I’m guessing you didn’t bother to look them up. On the other hand, you could have looked up skeletal policy proposals on Trump’s website which, as it turns out, meant absolutely nothing anyway. So much for substantive calculations.

      Duane

       

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  5. I just added a quote on Facebook from James Madison that he wrote in Federalist 57. It reads, “The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.”

    I then added this comment, “Wisdom? Virtue? Common good? Public trust? Me thinks we ought to send a letter of apology to Madison and the other founders for how we completely fucked up our democratic republic.”

    Sad times, these. Not sure I can ever get to the last of the five stages of grief – acceptance.

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    • Herb,

      Thanks for sharing Mr. Madison with us. The Founders were both wise and unwise, even though they mostly get credit for the former and not the latter.

      Oh, I can tell you for sure that I will never get to acceptance. We, as a people, if we are to be a good and decent people, cannot accept the normalization of ignorance and bigotry, married with disturbing personality disorders, as qualities in our leaders.

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    • Anonymous

       /  December 4, 2016

      Herb,

      I enjoyed very much your opinion that was printed in today’s Joplin Globe. I agree that we are indeed in a constitutional crisis. Trump won’t even provide his tax returns, so I sincerely doubt he divests his business interests. Greed is his motivation, not the respect of the high office of leader of the free world.

      I hope you are correct that the Electoral College demands, as Bush and Obama’s attorneys have suggested, that Trump is forced to divest his business interests entirely before being allowed to represent our country. I expect Trump will be answering lawsuits for years to come. Fighting back is exactly the order of the day!

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