Friday, March 30, 2018

In Pursuit of Justice and Equality - and Truth

"One of the biggest challenges we have to our democracy is the degree to which we don't share a common baseline of facts." President Barack Obama on David Letterman's My Next Guest Needs No Introduction.
Aristotle would have agreed with Obama. In his treatise on politics he wrote, "On questions of equality and justice, even though it is very difficult to discover the truth about them, nevertheless it is easier to hit upon it than to persuade people that have the power to get an advantage to agree to it; equality and justice are always sought by the weaker party, but those that have the upper hand pay no attention to them." He would have enjoyed meeting Obama, the exception to prove the rule, but would probably have shrugged his shoulders at the current US president and said, "You see?"

However, he might have been unpleasantly surprised at just how much more difficult it is now for civilians to hit upon the truth about anything, let alone what concerns equality and justice, despite our unfettered access to this hallmark of the 21st century, information.   

We've been totally enamored of and seduced by it, blindly believing in general that the accumulation of it equates to wisdom, and that in the political arena, where the controls lie for developing, protecting and promoting social equality and justice, the more information we have about candidates and the consequences of their behavior, the better our voting choices can be. But if that were true, given that there's a glut of information now, the world would be barreling along in peace, prosperity and national and international harmony. There would be no poverty, great divides in income or discrimination of any kind. Equality and justice would reign supreme.

Instead, established dictators are still getting away with murder and being congratulated by world leaders for corrupted elections. Leaders with ambition to be dictators are entrenching themselves in power, and vast swathes of super-malleable citizens are being tossed and tumbled about helplessly in tsunamis of terror at the prospect of losing forever a status quo that was never honestly earned and always gained at the expense of somebody or other. Stolen. 

The primary tenets of democracy, once so easily identifiable, seem to be losing their definition and potency, wasting away like the muscles of a cancer victim, leaving a skeleton. A lifeless, pitiful, vestigial thing.

Equality, freedom, justice; societies that operate on an understanding that the best interests for all must be enshrined—that's what we think our western democracies protect. But democracy simply gives power to whoever garners the most votes. If the voting system is skewed to provide better voting opportunity to supporters of a corrupt and unqualified candidate, or lies are spread about that candidate's opponent, no matter how well qualified they are, and those who know the truth don't fight hard enough, democracy will prevail, but the democratically elected leader will be destructive for all.

We'll be in the realm of dictatorships, whether or not we see that we've actually chosen it by default, by not holding our politicians to account, but mostly by not holding ourselves to account and taking responsibility for the information we soak up and share and act upon. 

The nightmare won't end until we get it, that information isn't necessarily truth, and until truth is re-established and the majority of the electorate want it and are capable of discerning it.
“If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, and particularly in an age of social media when so many people are getting their information in sound bites and off their phones, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.” Barack Obama, on Nov 17 2016 in Berlin. 
There's no escaping it; the problems he warned us of have burgeoned. The truth is that we turned our eyes away from the reality that the platform for the free flow of information has been a tool that's enabled the worst in us. Using the platform, we've actively facilitated bombardment of misinformation and have ourselves become a tool for blurring the line between truth and lies so much that many can't tell the difference any more. Caught by thine own springe. 

Brexit and the 2016 US elections woke us up to a living nightmare. Digital technologies, which we've practically made a god of, were used, primarily by Russia, to seduce citizens into thwarting the purpose of democracy, which is to create a system that protects and nurtures the best in humanity.

So now our democracies in the West are being torn apart and the doors are open wide for an autocrat with malintent, either actively pursuing destruction, or hell-bent on it by virtue of being narcissistic, intellectually challenged, over-entitled and enabled, dysfunctional, overridden by prejudice and fear, and totally out of control.

It's dismaying to see how easily misinformation wormed its way into the West through technologies that have been so helpful in every other way. Terrifying to see how easily so many were conned. We watch footage of North Korea and can see how brainwashed the citizens are. It's obscene; we're quick to cry foul, can't they see how they're being manipulated? We proudly believe that in the West we have much more control over our minds. Yet a slim majority in the UK voted to leave the EU on the strength of promises made that nobody ever had any intention of fulfilling.

Across the Atlantic, America voted in an incompetent bigot and the world has been gasping in horror daily for almost a year and a quarter at every new presidential assault on the values that sustain healthy societies and international relationships.

For now, it looks as if the line between truth and misinformation has been irrevocably blurred for millions and that bigotry, racism, sexism, persecution, are on the ascendancy, especially in the world's allegedly strongest democracy. 

It's been virtually brought to its knees by a president who, on the campaign, promoted misinformation, exploited race-based fear and fabricated a 'reality' of carnage within and massive international threat from without. His actions in the White House have savaged the rights and safety of minorities, undermined the strong social fabric and economy established by Barack Obama and his Administration, reset the climate change dial onto fast forward, disrupted the international culture of diplomacy reintroduced by Obama. He has antagonized former allies and jeopardized world trade and world stability.

In the UK, the fallacy of Brexiteers' promise of freedom from pestilential immigrants and greater economic strength and power in independence from that poncy EU has been exposed, as reality plays out. The Guardian has tracked 11 promises made that have been broken. And the government is led by a woman who was a Remainer. The Prime Minister, when asked on camera whether Brexit will have been worth the price paid, like young George Washington, couldn't tell the lie. She appears to have taken seriously her role, seeing it as her responsibility to lead the government to do the will of the people, but it's an impossible task. What the very slender majority wanted isn't achievable.

And, as that's becoming increasingly apparent, calls for another referendum are gaining momentum. For all we know, the majority might not want Brexit at all any more. As for the US, the president won with a minority vote. So who are the US and British governments serving? Not the will of the people in the way we understand it.

The will of the fearful minority, the prejudiced, the misinformed and misled, i.e. the far right, which feeds off untruth and which has gained power in other countries, perhaps encouraged by the UK and the US: France, Germany, Italy, Hungary, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Poland, Austria. Highly exploitable themselves, the far right has used the tools used against them, primarily by Russian operatives, to exploit the fear and economic need of their friends and neighbors.

In the US, still for now the most powerful country in the world, far right Republicans have jumped on that bandwagon, and organizations like the NRA have had their field day exploiting it all. It's a hall of distorting mirrors in a tunnel of horrors.

Digital technologies. They've sped up the flow of information, which works for good and bad. But they've also made the consequences of whatever choices we make that much more imminent. Ironically, that could be our saving grace. We can't hide for very long from our own mistakes as citizens any more. We have to think about and question what we read, watch, write, say, create, because when we irresponsibly pursue and share salacious misinformation we con ourselves and others, and add another signature to the death warrant of our democracies, paving the way for dictators. 

We sow discord and reap the nightmare harvest very quickly, laying waste to the social fabric of our world and leaving it in chaos for our children to clean up the mess. 

Far better to get to work now to clean up our own mess, take responsibility for our actions and our minds. Seek out truth, spurn and expose misinformation. Vote in droves for politicians who do the same. It's achievable. We can do it. Yes we can.
"For generations we have known of knowledge’s infinite power. Yet somehow, we’ve never questioned the keeper of the keys — The guardians of information." – Donovan Livingston, Harvard speech