On January 4, 2017

Fake news, is it for real?

By Jon Morgolis, VTDigger

Fake news has not come to Vermont.
Not that some Vermonters don’t consider a report in the newspaper or on TV here and there to have been inaccurate or biased.
But that’s not what fake news is. Fake news is a completely invented false item, like the one about the Pope endorsing Donald Trump. An example of Vermont fake news would be a story stating that Governor-elect Phil Scott, having been born in Uzbekistan and never naturalized, was not a U.S. citizen.
(For the record, Scott was born, on Aug. 4, 1958, in Barre, as certainly as Barack Obama was born on – would you believe it? – the very same date, three years later, in Honolulu).
Nothing remotely like the Scott/Uzbekistan story has surfaced in Vermont, where the sociopolitical culture remains relatively rational.
Granted, the very concept of a sociopolitical culture is somewhat nebulous and resists precise measurement. Still, the public discussion here, while sometimes acrimonious, rarely if ever descends to the level of rank incivility or mindless irrationality.
Vermonters, no matter how angry they get, do not threaten to take up arms against their own government, much less actually do so, as some Westerners have recently done in Nevada and Oregon.
Nor do Vermonters intent on protecting the natural world resort to sabotage, violence or the threat thereof. (Chaining oneself to a bull-dozer to protest a natural gas pipeline may be inane, but it doesn’t hurt anybody.)
No Vermont politician has suggested that Michelle Obama be “let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla.” A New York politician has. Nor has an elected representative in Vermont praised Russia for hacking into the emails of American politicians. A Congressman from Arizona did.
As a noticeable chunk of the country loses touch with both rationality and civility, Vermont largely adheres to both. Just look at how the incoming Republican governor is reappointing senior officials of his Democratic predecessor, who in turn had reappointed officials of his Republican predecessor. That doesn’t happen in many states these days. It is not happening in Washington.
Maybe it’s because Vermonters are more likely to be college graduates or a bit more affluent. Or maybe it’s just that Vermont is old-fashioned (it is, after all, old – the 14th oldest state) and therefore more traditional.
But before Vermonters pride themselves on being traditional rationalists and basking in the knowledge that theirs was the state that gave Donald Trump his smallest vote percentage, perhaps they should consider whether old-fashioned means outmoded. Maybe Trump and his followers, with their blatant indifference to fact – even to the entire process of using verifiable evidence to determine what fact is – have the better grasp of the future. Consider that the Oxford Dictionary’s chosen new word of 2016 was “post-truth,” defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential … than appeals to emotion or personal belief.”
Sounds like the recent presidential campaign, which perhaps introduced new realities. New realities create new institutions, or at least erode the foundations of old ones. Thanks to the Internet and social media, for instance, everyone can be a journalist. You need only a computer, a modem, energy (and perhaps coffee), and strong opinions, and … poof! You can disseminate information and express your point of view, and in the process discomfit the journalistic elites and the political establishment.
Elites and establishments need to be discomfited from time to time. But other terms for a person who has risen into the elite ranks of a profession are “someone who knows how to do the job” and, “someone with standards.” Neither term necessarily applies to the energetic, opinionated guy with a modem and a lot of coffee.
But that may no longer matter. The line between “Every man-or-woman-a-journalist” and “every man-or-woman a king” is a blurry one. If establishments and their elites crumble, then everyone is equal, not just equal before the law, but equally worthy of being paid heed.
They are indeed equal before the law, at least in the republic created by the Founding Fathers some years back. But those guys would have been horrified at the idea of people holding office – or writing for public consumption about the people holding office – who knew little about public affairs and who were not devoted to the process of rational analysis based on examination of empirically testable evidence.
The Founding Fathers are revered – almost worshipped by some Americans – but misunderstood. They were impressive folks, but they were folks, flawed like other folks. Thomas Jefferson was the major Founder who did not attend the Constitutional Convention because he was in Paris, representing the new United States at the Court of Louis XVI and trying his best to seduce a married woman. His great antagonist, Alexander Hamilton, didn’t have to try. A married woman seduced him, then tried to blackmail him.
Ironically, some of the same people who so venerate the Founders also rail against “elites,” apparently not realizing that though they were rebels, the Founding Fathers were themselves elites who created a far more elitist version of democracy than today’s American would tolerate. Under their plan, U.S. senators were chosen by state legislatures, not voters, and in those days only white males with a certain amount of property could vote. The Founders, being white males with a lot of property, had no problem with that.
And while they had their emotions and personal beliefs, they did not rely on them to make political decisions. They were products of the era known as the Enlightenment, when (as the encyclopedia Britannica put it) “mere prejudice, convention and tradition” were replaced by “the use and celebration of reason.” The Founders were part of the century which overthrew the authority of kings and priests, putting in its place the authority of rational analysis and the scientific method.
The question now is whether the new century will overthrow that authority, replacing it with two alternative authorities: the authority of the tribe, as nativism flourishes in both Europe and the United States; and the authority of the unfettered individual, connected neither to information and knowledge nor to any social institution.
Because a social institution can become an “establishment,” or part of it. But that system of government the Founders invented thanks to their commitment to rational analysis – representative democracy – requires social institutions. It also requires people who know how to do the job and people with standards, people who tend to rise to leadership positions in those social institutions where they constitute … an elite.
Representative democracy depends on elites. Shaking them up from time to time is beneficial. Eliminating them in favor of decision-making by unfettered individuals relying on their emotions or personal belief threatens its survival.
But maybe, like rational analysis, representative democracy is becoming obsolete, to be replaced by … well, who knows?
If so, it will be interesting to see the reaction of Vermonters, most of them still stuck in a pre post-truth frame of mind. They can take comfort in the fact that fake news has not come to Vermont. Or would it be more accurate to say that fake news has not come to Vermont … yet?

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