Tag Archives: social institutions

The Crux of the Problem….

Yesterday’s discussion of trade agreements generated a number of thoughtful comments. As regular readers know, I rarely “weigh in” to the back-and-forth (for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I have a day job), but I do want to focus in on an observation posted by Pete, because it describes an under-appreciated challenge of modernity that has increasingly been troubling me.

Pete said:

Trade agreements are very complex to even read and comprehend much less determine their impact over time on the greater good. I’m not sure why anyone would believe that they totally understand any of them based on advertising or even real news if you can find it.

That’s why I rely on other professionals like Drs and lawyers for their specialties and why I hope they rely on folks like me to keep wings from falling off airplanes.

It’s the most pernicious of modern myths that we are capable of understanding the intricacies of many many things including international trade.

It isn’t only complex trade agreements. It’s the increasing fragmentation and specialization that characterizes contemporary societies and modernity in general.

The problem, as Pete notes, is that none of us is a polymath capable of independently assessing the credibility of information about our modern environments: whether the airplane has been properly designed, the trade pact adequately protects our interests, the new medication is free of side effects, the scientists are accurately measuring climate change…We have no choice but to depend upon the informed, professional opinions of those who are expert in these various fields.

And right now, most of us don’t trust anyone. Worse, we don’t know how to determine who is expert and trustworthy.

There are a lot of reasons for our pervasive skepticism. Our current “wild west” information landscape is a major one: at the same time that media has made us aware of the myriad ways in which our public institutions have failed us (Enron, the “banksters,” the Catholic Church molestation scandals, major league sports dopers and “deflaters,” government officials…), that same media has itself morphed and fragmented, causing us to lose much of what used to be called the “journalism of verification.”

At the same time that we are positively marinating in “information”–much of it trivial and/or bogus– determining the credibility of that information and the identity and credentials of its source has become challenging if not impossible. We have “news” without context. Even reputable studies and surveys are cherry-picked and distorted. As a result, in areas where we do not possess the historical, scientific or technical knowledge to critically evaluate what we read or hear–which for most of us, is most areas–we simply choose to believe sources that confirm our pre-existing biases.

Even when Pete’s plane flies and the wings don’t fall off, a sizable percentage of us will choose to believe reports that it crashed.

In our internet age, with both information and misinformation ubiquitous, the challenge is to combat propaganda and spin without doing damage to the First Amendment–and to build and monitor trustworthy social institutions and a credible and trusted media. That will require–at the very least–a vastly improved public education system that equips citizens to evaluate the credibility of information sources, and the emergence of a rigorous and ethical journalism.

We don’t seem very committed to either task.


We Have Met the Enemy…

Pretend you have just landed in the United States from another planet. You look around you at the various institutions you encounter. What conclusions would you draw about the inhabitants of this society?

With a few notable exceptions, you find newspapers and electronic news outlets focused on the trivial and sensational. When you ask those who produce them, they tell you that they are giving people what they want—and in the era of the Internet, they can count the clicks. You conclude that sports and sex are very important to these earthlings.

After some investigation, you also conclude that the majority of Americans view their governing institutions as just another kind of sport. They choose a team, and support the members of that team, who tell them what they want to hear—that the other team is cheating, that inconvenient facts aren’t true and that simple slogans hold the answers to complex problems.

Surely, you think, religion will be different. Religion, after all, was the way humans first tried to grapple with the serious questions: why are we here? What do we owe the others with whom we share this planet? What does it mean to be a good person? What, for that matter, is good, and what is evil? Although you do find many thoughtful religious figures grappling with those existential themes, you find many more whose message is exclusionary, authoritarian and small-minded—who insist that their Truth is superior, and even those who disagree must be forced to live by it.

I could stretch this exercise further. Our alien visitor could examine the behavior of the financial institutions that caused the Great Recession, and consider what that behavior suggests about the culture in which they operate.  Or the visitor could look at Hollywood and the entertainment industry, and speculate about the audiences they serve.

But here’s the point: We the People are that culture and that audience.

We are the ones following the celebrity scandal while ignoring reports on our government and society. We are the ones electing the buffoons who scorn science and evidence and elevate partisanship over both. We are the ones using religion as an excuse to demean and disadvantage our fellow-citizens. We are the ones conferring elevated status on “successful” operators who make a lot of money by buying lawmakers and fleecing the gullible.

My make-believe alien visitors would be entirely justified in concluding that we are being poorly served by our media, our government, and significant segments of our religious and business communities. But they would also be right to conclude that we are getting the institutions we deserve.

Pogo was right: We have met the enemy and he is us.