Law and politics

The Roots of America’s baseless beliefs

My dear friend Benjamin Klutsey recently shared this article with me. Daily Beast commentor Tunku Varadarajan asks how it is possible that 20% of Americans believe Obama is muslim, and explores the basis for the numerous false beliefs held around the country.

“[This mind-boggling disconnect between perception and reality] suggests ignorance, of course,” says Varadarajan, “but a very provocative, toxic ignorance, one in which there is an imperviousness to facts in the pursuit of political warfare. This is not dumbness, or denseness, or illiteracy, but belligerent unenlightenment. “

And to some extent he’s spot on. There is a certain aggressiveness in the manner in which people communicate  and defend everything from their “doubts” about Obama’s religion to the “question” of his birth certificate. But what’s worse than the widespread level of ignorance are those who peddle this form of belligerent ignorance with malicious misinformation with the specific intent of fanning flames to fuel and redirect the public’s frustrations for their own political and financial gain. My friend Mr. Klutsey observes that political warfare can indeed by a dangerous thing. I’d go a step further. It is an inherently dangerous activity – often most dangerous for the innocent bystanders whose fates depend on the outcome of the partisan warfare.

The greatest failure in this whole debacle though seems to me to be on the part of the media. If indeed the strength of a democracy relies on its citizens being informed and engaged, then the active misinformation and general lowering of journalistic standards is, if not to blame for the current state of affairs, then certainly an accomplisce in producing them. I have my doubts as to whether the adoption of even the most stringent ‘truth standards’ and the most honourable of journalistic practices would by themselves be sufficent to maintain a thriving democracy. But certainly the current situation, rife with pseudojournalism and opinion masquerading as news (often on the major TV networks) is a major impediment to creating an informed citizenry.

And perhaps worse than merely misinforming the public, I’d bet a lot of folks are getting frustrated and disenchanted with the whole enterprise of political discourse, in which you basically have to fact-check everything you hear because even the news we receive is often filtered through some left-or-right leaning mouth-piece and not presented merely to inform but with the grinding sound of an axe against a propaganda wheel. With the increasing effort required to be truly informed (and not merely caught up to speed on the latest hot bit of spin from one talking head or another), it’s no surprise a lot of people are tuning out and choosing “America’s got talent” over hearing a presidential address or the like.

We’re increasingly misinformed and even more disengaged. The only ones who aren’t of course, are those getting worked up by the fear-mongerers and rabid talking heads on either extreme of the political divide. They may be just as misinformed (or perhaps more so), but fully engaged and angered and riled up and eager to have their voices heard and pass their own misinformation onto others.

In that sense, perhaps the only thing worse than a misinformed and disengaged citizenry is the misinformed but actively engaged, angered and riled up citzenry that talking-heads of all party colors seem eager to mobilize.


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