Michael Huber is communications specialist for the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany. He was previously the community publishing editor and interactive audience manager at the Times Union. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
America: Home of the clueless
By Michael Huber
Generally speaking, Americans are ignorant. When the average citizen is unwilling or incapable of discerning fact from opinion, or fake news from real news, s/he becomes an ineffectual component in the decision-making apparatus of our democratic society.
These opinions are hardly new. Nearly 100 years ago, Walter Lippmann wrote his most influential book Public Opinion (1922), in which he views America as "altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance … We have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage with it."
Lippmann, Manhattan-born and Harvard-educated, briefly worked as executive secretary to George Lunn, the socialist mayor of Schenectady, NY, before turning to journalism. He had written five books before publishing Public Opinion. His 'simpler model' necessitates a distillation of complex ideas into a less nuanced manner of thinking. He employed the term stereotype to describe one's strategy of synthesizing an information overload into less problematic, and inherently less refined points of view.
"Modern life is hurried and multifarious," Lippmann writes of the bustling 1920s. "Above all physical distance separates men who are often in vital contact with each other, such as employer and employee, official and voter. There is neither time nor opportunity for intimate acquaintance. Instead we notice a trait which marks a well-known type, and fill in the rest of the picture by means of the stereotypes we carry about in our heads."
Stereotypes became a coping strategy, an easy formulation for citizens in a nation growing more automated and complex with each passing decade. Like a painter working with a limited palette, less deliberation and consideration of major issues results in a less enlightened society. This broad-brush approach to civic duty produces simple solutions to complex issues and relegates Thomas Jefferson's concept of the "omnicompetent citizen" to a mythical ideal.
In our most recent presidential election, we see how stereotypes have codified into a binary approach to politics. "I'm right, you're wrong." "Trump is great" or "Trump is a fraud." We elect politicians based on slogans and sound bites. We have a society getting information from social media and partisan news sources. Ideas which oppose our own are flatly discarded, and fellow citizens – or more accurately, online acquaintances – with whom we disagree are "unfriended."
In Lippmann's view, “For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see. In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture.”
In a world where news (and fake news) is tweeted out within seconds, we fall back on stereotypes. We lack the time, energy or capacity to discern the truth. Instead, we "like" a tweet or employ a dismissive emoji to disagree with a writers's online scribbling.
Lippmann's sober critique of his time leaves one anxious about the future of American politics in our time. Jefferson recognized only an informed citizenry has the capacity to perform its role in the republic: "An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic. Self-government is not possible unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight." Frank S. Robinson, whose essay "American Trumped" is found in this issue, offers a grim assessment: "Enlightenment values really don’t have much purchase with the broad American public."
To continue with the metaphor of the painter, we need more paints on our palette. To better educate our citizenry, we need better information, and historically that came from journalists, the only profession protected in the Constitution. "Journalism at its best matters; journalism at its best is important,” said former CBS news anchor Dan Rather in a 2015 interview, “But to do that kind of journalism consistently on a [regular] basis requires an ethos that journalism is a public service, not in the service of powerful corporations, and not in the service of government.”
More than half the jobs in journalism have disappeared in the past 15 years, leaving a vacuum of quality content that's been filled with fragments of thoughts posted on social media. As Paul Grondahl writes elsewhere in Trolley, "Facebook, Twitter, Google, Apple and Amazon are the most powerful gatekeepers of information in American history and there is very little oversight or regulation regarding content."
America's unenlightened citizenry begat its unenlightened leaders. Without discernment and thoughtful debate on issues, we diminish hope for Jefferson's "well-ordered republic." While President Donald Trump is the tip of the spear of the anti-intellectual movement, it's been decades in the making. In 1980, Isaac Asimov wrote an essay titled "A Cult of Ignorance" in Newsweek: "There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge." He wonders whether ignorance is so wonderful after all.
The average American becomes a danger to democracy by abdicating his/her role in civic society. We'll leave the last word to Lippmann: “There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies.”