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Monday, June 11, 2012

You mean everyone isn't like me?

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  The internet revolution and its prophets promised us a world of greater information—greater understanding—conference calls between students in Indiana and China while Cyndi Lauper sang “True Colors” and a mother in Kansas knitted a quilt made from Afghan fibers and the entire world learned to live along with concepts of interdependence and shared common good.  Somewhere in that dream resided visions of greater concern for the environment—and end to wars (at least unjust ones) and more fulfilling lives.  I remember those commercials?  Do you? 

Sadly, the stories of our “Modern times” have not born out all the words of the Lauper song just yet.  Along our yellow brick road we are having to deal with Assad’s gang of murderous thugs, Chinese currency manipulation, stop and frisk policies in the minority neighborhoods of New York City and a thousand other examples where the “old empire” will just not yield to all the progress—all the societal change—that were supposed to have been fully realized about 500 issues ago of PC Weekly.

If you are looking for evidence that things haven’t gotten much better it is not be hard to find—it’s out there every day.  But I would argue that we are seeing examples everyday, in these clinging old guard stories, of just how much progress has been made.  Unfortunately, the very tools that have brought us so far so fast—there is Black President for God’s sake!—have also permitted those afraid of change, of growth, of progression—to cling to the old and the familiar and the stable—with all their might.  The greatest of their tools are money and—the internet. 

Beyond encouraging people of the earth to connect and grow and share and learn, the internet has permitted, like any good tool, people to make of it what they will.  For those so inclined, it is a vast resource of curiosity, of knowledge, of answers and connectivity.  For others, however, it is a tool to reaffirm beliefs, suspicions and ideas that may have little basis in truth, or reality, but none-the-less can find validity in the simple quantity of those who share the same creed.  It is an often cited political theory that even an outright lie will be accepted as truth if you simply say it enough times—and there are many opportunities to hear (and read) the same lies on the internet—in countless forums, pages and sites that are subject to no arbitrator of truth.  That is a necessary element of freedom—people can say what they want—but when people put those believes into practices that invade the political sphere—a dangerous line is crossed. And some type of counteraction must occur.   

This is an understandable and inevitable side of effect of people insulating themselves from what they don’t know—or don’t care to experience.  I find it somewhat revealing that only 71% of Americans actually know a gay or lesbian person according to a recent survey—but equally amazing to match the increasing percentages of support for marriage equality with the equivalent increase in that “awareness number”.  What is shocking is the simplicity in the finding—as people come to see that LGBTQ people are more than the comic (will and grace) or the stylish (most shows on HGTV)—but that we are real people with real desires and that those are the same as anyone else—well how can the answer be anything other than encouraging the same rights for LGBTQ people as anyone else?

But the road goes both ways.  The same sharing of information of experience that can drive a growth in understanding or acceptance can facilitate a misperception or a lie.  Take for example the “Birthers”—those who just can not let go of their deeply held belief that president Obama was not born in the State of Hawaii.  Never mind that it doesn’t even matter—he’s already President for God’s sake.  Never mind the evidence.  Never mind the historical record.  Never mind the Birth Certificate.  Never mind the constitutional reality that, as long as his mother was a US citizen, which has never been in doubt, that Obama was automatically a citizen as well.  Ask John McCain about this as well—given that he was born in Panama.  

More on the point, it is the feedback loop of similar opinion—of always hearing from those who believe exactly like you—that permits this type of thing to continue.  And the desire of those who do know the truth to not offend potential political supporters (See again comments from John McCain in the 2008 campaign and compare those comments to more recent ones) that stops any chances of educating these false opinions out of the system.  Another example was the recent 60 Minutes interview where Eric Cantor’s (current house majority leader) aide came unhinged because Leslie Stahl asked about Ronald Reagan’s tax increases.  This simple-minded fool could not believe that Reagan had done so and called out Stahl for “lying”—despite mountains of historical records that can never be in doubt.  When even those in our elected political culture demonstrate this much disconnect—can it be any wonder of the atmosphere that our politics now reveal?

When the leaders and figures who do know better fail to do so, it must fall on the media to exercise some shred of polite instruction—however they too desire more not to offend with truth (or rightful scorn) than to set the record straight.  Leslie Stahl did try to set the record straight—but to even entertain this nonsense without laughter is to give more credibility than is ever deserved.  Further, the voter, the greatest stakeholder, seems to see nothing wrong with this—especially when falsehoods uttered by politicians only further their own incomplete or inaccurate views.  Comments permitted on websites after news stories are a wonderful example of allowing the public to have its cake and eat it too—as those who just don’t agree can offer their own assessment of reality—regardless of the reporters research, the comments of someone interviewed or the basic reality of the story.  

It didn’t used to be like this.  In a world of more limited media choices—otherwise known as the 1970s—before the days of cable news and websites—the reality required people to get their news from sources that were much different, and, in my opinion, much more robust.  Newspapers focused on traditional—more researched journalism, as did TV news.  There will likely never be an Edward R Murrow or Walter Cronkite on the news again—the price is just too high—and people wont invest the time to hear what someone has to say—especially when its something they might not want to hear.  So they turn the channel, or go to the website that agrees with them—and won’t challenge them—and no one grows at all.  No growth in their exposure, in their mind, or in their heart.

And, as a result, we all suffer.  Especially when these sheltered people gain prominence in the political sphere.  When unquestioned assumptions and beliefs become something that no one will challenge, least of all the media who are now encouraged to value all sides—we all begin to loose not just the truth but the touchstones of society.  The very basis of our history becomes a matter of debate or interpretation.  Any community must have some of these common points to build on—or else the whole package can disperse into three hundred million questions of perspective.  More importantly, we gradually loose the ability to learn from history—from our mistake and our successes—if history becomes not a question of fact but rather political prospective and uneducated opinion. For although you may analyze history from any number of prospectives—you can not change what actually happened.  

Until we learn, as part of our progression through this new age, to not take assumption as fact; to encourage people of all political persuasions to expand their horizons; reward and elect politicians with courage to think and offer even hard truths, return critical thought to the academic world at all levels, (and replace an academic culture of success revealed by test scores); then we will often fail to meet the promise of the new age of information. We will loose out on the successes that this age can bring to the whole host of problems that face the human condition—and we endanger the rich fabric of our nation as become isolated from the experience and the ideas and differences that made up our melting pot.  It is a horrible stew that has only one ingredient and as long as so many people use the internet simply to become modern members of the flat earth society—and until people are willing to call them out and refuse to entertain the ignorance—instead of the power of possibility, we will be constrained to the power of ignorance.  History is never kind to those who bathe in waters of close-mindedness—I just wish someone would tell that to the birthers. But they probably wouldn’t listen.

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