The New Year Is Upon Us, Part II

Now under new management

Now under new management

Uh, “fake news” is your top concern? Is that the best you’ve got?

I mean, what about hangnails? And food spoiling when you forget about the leftovers in the fridge? And traffic! Traffic sucks! Let’s fix that!

I jest, of course. But something all of these have in common is that they are simply part of life. You can fix a particular situation, but the overall issue isn’t going away.

Oh, and for the latter three, you generally don’t have to abridge Constitutional freedoms to address them. The First Amendment protects people’s right to say stupid things, as reflected in American libel laws. And with regard to social media, it will take mere weeks for people to figure out how to game the system and flag real things as fake if they simply don’t like the content, thus defeating its purpose. There’s really nothing else to say about institutional “solutions” – they will all fail legally and practically.

Disinformation is best fought culturally, especially in a liberal society in which the state (ideally) maintains a light footprint in the world of speech. If we take our First Amendment seriously, no top-down effort can defeat propaganda. People (enough of them, anyway) simply have to know when to ignore it.

Foreign propaganda will not gain a following in a strong society that believes in itself and has confidence in itself. Members of such a culture will understand that what they are being told does not quite jive with who they know themselves collectively to be. Propaganda is effective because it is loosely based in truth; usually, the event (whether current or historic) being discussed is a real thing – but the intentions, motivations and other abstractions provide natural room for interpretation, and a foreign interloper can play in this space to sow doubt among a population about its nation’s doings. But members of a confident culture will understand that the doubt being sold does not comport with what they know to be true. And the propagandist will fail.

Belief is a human need. People have always had religion. People have always had national glory. And there have always been naysayers looking down on such beliefs as useless myths that hold us back. But even the naysayers still must believe something too – and foreign propaganda can provide that hook, especially if they are already conditioned to believe their society is regressive. A society that fails to believe in itself will find something else to believe in, some kind of narrative that explains the world, however imperfectly, and however contrary to its own interests.

Referring back to Part I yesterday, this is where Russia’s RT network lives. Its motto is “Question More.” This pretty much encapsulates the theme in the last paragraph. RT is saying, “Has the Western model got you down? You don’t believe in the great myth anymore? We’ve got another version that might fit you better!”

And you know what? They are welcome to say so. We do free speech here, and it applies to them too.

The solution is to come armed with an understanding of what America is – not just as an administrative unit or set of place names, but its nature as a maritime, free-trading state; a cultural outgrowth of England and the Enlightenment; and as an occupant of North America with the relationships and geographies that entails. And, even more importantly, an understanding of why people continue to come here, what their aspirations are, and why they believe they can better realize them in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world.

In a sense, our task is to get reacquainted with the myth. Not simply to regurgitate something about Columbus sailing the ocean blue, but to know why it’s important. Can we still call it a myth? Sure. No one can deny mistreatment of natives and slaves, and a million other injustices that occurred in the past. But a lot of great things happened in America’s past too, leading to the fastest and broadest improvement in quality of life in all of human history, which is, you know, nothing to sneeze at. In any case, the myth is less about the past than the future. The myth helps us determine what kind of people and what kind of country we want to be as we move forward, not looking back.

Bottom line: You should have no problem getting all your news from RT, al-Jazeera America and CCTV (the Chinese one). You will be impeccably informed on world events. But before you do, administer yourself an inoculation. It’s easy – all you need to do is believe in America. Seeing through the spin is easier than you might think.

And, yes, I recognize most people think of “fake news” as more an issue of random web sites outright making things up so people click on their links. The same principle above still applies. Fakery is bipartisan and international. Watch for signs that a story or study is serving someone’s narrative, which you can often judge simply by the venue of publication. Certain facts are uncontestable, but the abstract realms of intention and feeling can be twisted to totally change how different outlets interpret an event. Just remember what this country ultimately stands for, and that things are never as bad, nor as good, as the headlines may say.

Here’s to a mildly better-informed 2017.


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