Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
Educate and inform the whole mass of the people…They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.
Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.
These three quotes by Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s Founding Fathers, came to mind this morning as I reflected upon the concept of “alternate facts” put forth by President Trump’s spinmeisters. Now, politicians have long had spokespeople whose job it was to “spin” the truth in a favourable way. But never before has there been an American president or his team that has so boldly and blatantly lied, and then doubled down by concocting the term “alternate facts” to discredit the actual truth and sell its version as the real deal. Sadly, this is the reality of what has been called the new post-fact world. There has been much blame of Trump and his minions. But they in fact didn’t create it. They merely mastered the art of it.
The post-fact world actually started a couple decades ago in academia, the media, and popular culture, when every opinion was suddenly deemed equal. When creationism and evolution began to be taught in some US states as two sides of the same coin; when climate change deniers were given equal media time with scientists who had proof of the melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels; when celebrity anti-vaccine advocates with zero medical training were given as much opportunity to spread their false beliefs as actual doctors from the Centers for Disease Control; when the political, social, scientific opinions of actors and musicians were weighted the same in the media as that of actual scientists, politicians, economists, and sociologists. The decline into the post-fact world accelerated in the last decade when the concept of micro-aggression first reared its ugly head: when we were all free to post, tweet, and share our opinions unless by doing so our opinions offended someone, in which case the backlash could cause one to be forced off of social media by an angry mob, and the multibillion dollar corporation that runs said social media site, and possibly get one fired from a job that was completely unrelated to one’s personal opinions.
That the freight train of personal opinion trumping fact (no pun intended), would continue unabated did not become evident just with the current president’s campaign. Many foresaw this coming years ago when universities, the bastions of free speech, began silencing those voices that it deemed offensive. The very concept of universities was that they were supposed to teach one to think, as opposed to dictating an ideology. Academia was supposed to introduce the great thinkers like Voltaire and Mill, such maxims as “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, as well as concepts like that of protecting against the tyranny of any particular view by allowing for the free exchange of ideas. Instead, US campuses began banning that speech which it deemed offensive. In the US, speakers such as Milos Yiannopolous, Dennis Prager, and Ben Shapiro (all self-identified conservatives) had events cancelled on many campuses when those on the left complained about them because they were offended by ideas that didn’t mirror their own. When documentary filmmaker Ami Horowitz raised an Israeli flag in public, he was vilified, even by fellow Jews, but then he flies an ISIS flag in America to no comment at all.
In other words, this new world of alternate facts was a long time coming, and it is now upon the United States. And it is the result of the failings of both the left and the right. Fault lies not in the politics of any particular ideology, but in the stubborn myopia and moral righteousness of both conservatives and liberals. One need only look to former democracies such as Pakistan, Turkey, and Venezuela, where government spread false information while simultaneously slowly discrediting and then shuttering media, to see where America is headed.
At the end of the day, the media and public are to blame for Trump. Consider that in 1988, Gary Hart, certain nominee for the Democrats and very possible president, was forced to drop out of the primaries because he was caught having an extramarital affair. The affair was with a woman of legal age and was fully consensual. Less than 30 years later the man who bragged about how he could “grab them by the pussy”, and was being sued by numerous women for sexual assault in the midst of the election campaign, was elected president. Much like facts, morality too has become subjective.
Is it too late? Hopefully not. There are two remaining columns in American life protecting against tyranny in present day (the idea of a public militia, however tempting, is of a different time): media and law.
Lawyers play a key role in advancing democracy and keeping the government’s feet to the fire. Hopefully in the coming months and years, there will be no shortage of lawyers prepared to take unpopular causes, often pro bono, to court to protect liberty of individuals and free speech of all.
And last, but certainly not least, the media. It is time for the media to get back to reporting and not opining. Media should be in the business of reporting difficult and unpopular facts, and holding the government of the day to account. It is not the journalist’s job to choose sides.
It is time to put aside political differences and focus on the big picture. An uninformed populace is prey to the likes of the newly elected president.
For those who think they can blindly go about their lives convinced the new president’s temperament doesn’t affect them, I shall leave the reader with this quote from Pastor Martin Niemoller, a German clergyman who lived through the Holocaust, and wrote thereafter numerous versions of a poem about the cowardice and apathy of those Germans who felt themselves unaffected by the rise of the Third Reich:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me