On August 16, 2023

Was Ben Franklin right? Will we end in despotism?


By Jeffrey Reel

Editor’s note: Jeffrey Reel is a resident of Hartland.

Critical thinking has been described as an ability to question; to acknowledge and test previously held assumptions; to examine, interpret, evaluate, reason and reflect; to make informed judgments and decisions; and to clarify, articulate and justify positions … thinking carefully about a subject or idea, without allowing feelings or opinions, exclusively, to affect us.

Critical thinking requires, at minimum, a sixth-grade reading comprehension in order to develop this essential skill. The U.S. Department of Education reports that 21% of adults in the United States are illiterate, and 54% of adults have a literacy below sixth-grade level — that is to say, the majority of Americans are below the level for developing and using critical thinking skills. 

The United States now ranks 125th for literacy when compared with other nations around the world.

This helps explain the Trump phenomenon. It explains why a majority of Marjorie Taylor Greene’s constituents continue to support her. It explains why anachronistic arguments trying to disprove the existence of climate change (still voiced by prominent people and institutes within our own community) continue to have any traction at all, thankfully with diminishing support as even the most unobservant reader can’t help but recognize the growing impact of climate change.

It helps explain the backlash against, and scorn for, “intellectuals” and the professionals emerging from our Ivy League institutions. 

Sen. Ted Cruz is one of many politicians who lead that charge. Of course, he himself is a graduate of Harvard Law, but he can ignite the passions of millions of citizens in this cause because he knows his constituents don’t have the bandwidth to make that connection.

Lacking this ability to think critically is a recipe for failure in a democracy; it’s a recipe for success in a fascist state. Dictators depend upon the support of those citizens possessing little or no critical thinking skills — appealing, instead, to their baser instincts and lowest nature.

At the close of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, 1787, while the parchment that framed a new and untested system of government was still wet with ink from the signatures of 39 delegates, Benjamin Franklin offered his opinion on this great experiment: “I agree to this Constitution with all its faults … because I think a general government necessary for us…; and I believe, further, that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.” 

We have built this great nation upon a legacy rooted in our access to education and information, cornerstones for any democracy. But our educational standards have fallen precipitously and we now inform ourselves almost exclusively through the media bubbles we choose to live within, feeling most comfortable within, and defended by our tribes, instead of engaging each other on the fields of inquiry, dialogue and self-reflection.

Americans are informing themselves through Twitter feeds, Instagram posts and Facebook pages. In short, we’ve squandered our inheritance. And we are about to be blindsided with artificial intelligence, which is developing exponentially. 

In short order, it will so bastardize the media landscape that we will no longer be able to discern fact from fiction.

Our landscape is changing at a mind-boggling rate (displaced populations, growing civil and political unrest, catastrophic weather events, the diminishing reserves of fresh water for drinking and agriculture, chronic hunger, rising seas, the loss of plant and animal diversity). Cynics, fearmongers and opportunists who prey upon our insecurities will do their best to capitalize on these misfortunes.

What will be required is for a charismatic and inspiring leader to emerge from the detritus of our current political scene; someone who can appeal to our better nature and who can reach across a broad spectrum of ideas, educational backgrounds and political/social ideologies, because people who cannot critically think for themselves require leadership. 

It cannot be in the form of a twice-impeached, twice-indicted (most likely thrice or four-times indicted), convicted sexual deviant and former TV show host, as appealing as he is to many. But in the absence of a charismatic leader who is intelligent, experienced and compassionate, we are unlikely to find a way out of this thicket. 236 years on, I believe that Benjamin Franklin got it right.

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