Thursday, November 2, 2017

Russian Propaganda, Critical-Thinking Skills, and How the Christian Right Broke America: Valuable Recent Contributions to the Discussion

As Christopher Stroop has told us, the Christian right had discovered alt-facts and fake news long before those terms became common parlance. (I blogged about Chris' work in this area back in March). Chris argues — and persuasively so — that the Christian right "broke America" by developing an alternative universe of "truth" disseminated only to members of its tribalistic enclave communities. Chris states,

These enclave communities–I grew up in one–are designed defensively to protect the group's "absolute Truth" against facts that are too difficult and painful to face.

There's a direct line running from the Christian right and its world of alt-facts and fake news to the grim political realities we face in the U.S. today, in which a solid number of U.S. citizens choose to believe any and all kinds of truth-evading information as long as it supports their fantasies about the imminent return of a mythic white Christian America that is waning demographically and culturally. This is a recognition we need to revisit as we are becoming aware in the past several days of the extent to which Russian propaganda influenced the 2016 elections. 

Here are some helpful reflections on these themes that have come my way in the past several days, which I'd like to share with you now:





At Bill Moyers' blog site, Michael Winship talks with Bruce Bartlett, former Reagan advisor and author of the book Truth Matters: Winship asks Bartlett,

You place a lot of store in critical thinking and skepticism. How does that apply to citizens interpreting the news that they read and hear?

Bartlett replies:
Well, that's a very difficult problem and I certainly don't pretend that I have the answer. But I do talk a bit about being skeptical of stories that are too good to be true, stories that too conveniently fit your point of view, whether it's your religious point of view or your political point of view or whatever. And to try to get people to slow down a little bit and don’t just immediately hit the Facebook button or the Twitter button or cut and paste it into an email so that your friends can see these things. 
Try to slow down, double check these stories, because it's very easy to do so. You go to Google News or some other site such as that, and if you don’t see this story prominently mentioned, maybe it's something that's made up. And I think, you know, experienced people can just look at a URL, you know, the address for anything on the web, and see if this looks a little bit funny; this isn't The New York Times website, it's the New dot York dot Times or some variation of a legitimate news site that some people have set up to fool people.

In David Roberts' view, the U.S. is now facing a deep epistemic crisis, in which plain truth does not matter to a solid number of American citizens; the only truth that matters to many Americans is "truth" filtered to them by authority figures they trust in the right-wing media machine and their churches:

The US is experiencing a deep epistemic breach, a split not just in what we value or want, but in who we trust, how we come to know things, and what we believe we know — what we believe exists, is true, has happened and is happening. 
The primary source of this breach, to make a long story short, is the US conservative movement's rejection of the mainstream institutions devoted to gathering and disseminating knowledge (journalism, science, the academy) — the ones society has appointed as referees in matters of factual dispute.

Roberts concludes that even if the Mueller investigation finds ironclad proof that the man in the White House conspired with a hostile foreign government to secure his election, that finding would matter not a whit to many Americans — and the fake news machines that determine what they think and know would nullify the results of the finding, making it null and void. Hence his talk about an epistemic crisis . . . .

(It should be noted that, as Carol Anderson has recently pointed out, the majority of Trump's supporters in 2016 were college-educated, suburban, and economically well-off. This finding should give us pause to think about what kind of job U.S. educational institutions are doing in teaching critical-thinking skills to students. People can, it would appear, attain degrees of higher education and be sorely deficient in critical-thinking skills, such that they are not really educated but trained — trained to do a job that earns them a good income, but narrowly and poorly educated, with a thin knowledge base, a lack of respect for wide learning from diverse sources, and a disinterest in sifting fact from fiction insofar as the truth overturns their taken-for-granted presuppositions.)

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