dear Americans: your country is doomed. (part 2)

Read part 1 here.

In searching for a fulcrum, there are 3 general areas in which I believe we need to focus our attention:

Elections. Setting aside the questionable validity of democracy as a form of social politics (see Crimethinc) as well as the nonsense of the Electoral College, the mathematical fact remains that the majority-wins method of counting votes is antithetical to the representative and popular functions elections are supposed to provide. The proof: in an election with more than two candidates, a candidate can win with a minority of votes. For a duopolistic system, this is ideal because it makes it structurally easy to politicize third parties out of the process. Throw in money, gerrymandering, corporate lobbying, prejudicial Voter ID laws, and biased electoral institutions (such as the Commission on Presidential Debates) and it’s clear that the electoral system isn’t about empowering people to choose their representatives on their own terms. It simply isn’t designed for it. Instead, the system – as it was when voting rights were confined to white male property owners – the US electoral system is a means of keeping the people on a leash, and the leash in the masters’ hands. The fix would be easy enough for those who want to reform US democracy: instant run-off voting, public campaign financing, and debates open to all candidates. Until people agitate for it, however, the system will remain a game of five card stud poker with voters only being dealt two cards to play.

If that’s too sunny for you, let’s return to the questionable validity of democracy as a form of social politics with a question: what political power does a citizen actually have? Answer: the vote. That’s it. Once elected, politicians can work the government apparatus to pass and enforce laws as well a direct agencies to function in a particular way. Citizen input is not required. Of course, lobbying is an activity that’s open to us…but who has time to forego a paying job to continually exert pressure on the government towards this or that policy goal? And protesting is an intensive activity that requires strategy and resolve, two qualities hard to get in a productivity-obsessed economy. Unless you’re a paid lobbyist, chances are that you’re too busy running your own life to be able to engage the political process via lobbying, let alone orchestrate direct actions. This isn’t a bug; it’s a specific feature of democracy, and politicians know how to exploit it.

But the problem is even deeper than that, as Mike Lofgren explains in his essay Anatomy of the Deep State:

…there is another government concealed behind the one that is visible at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country according to consistent patterns in season and out, connected to, but only intermittently controlled by, the visible state whose leaders we choose. My analysis of this phenomenon is not an exposé of a secret, conspiratorial cabal; the state within a state is hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day. Nor can this other government be accurately termed an “establishment.” All complex societies have an establishment, a social network committed to its own enrichment and perpetuation. In terms of its scope, financial resources and sheer global reach, the American hybrid state, the Deep State, is in a class by itself.

If the presidential and congressional power that is shaped by popular elections, however loosely, is only the surface of the vast apparatus of power that is unaccountable and bureaucratic, then it what sense is voting a meaningful expression of popular power over the government? Answer: it’s not all that meaningful.

The Media. Corrupt and purposefully dysfunctional elections are bad enough, but a corrupt and corrosive media that misinforms citizens is worse. Noam Chomsky famously described the workings of the US media as propaganda in his essential Manufacture of Consent, but the recent election cycle offers many other examples. For instance,the condescending, nearly non-existent coverage of third-party candidates. Even NPR, notable for its sanity in the carnival of contemporary journalism, routinely fails to cover perspectives outside of the Democrat/Republican duopoly. Like most of the mainstream media, it perpetuates a set of government- and corporate-friendly assumptions irrespective of partisan politics.

The media’s propagandist role, along with discussions around the value and consequences of the Fairness Doctrine and its rescinding, is only part of the problem, as is the fact that our distance from newsworthy events makes it difficult to serve as our own fact-checkers. The consolidation of media into a handful of a few powerful corporate conglomerates is another as it comes with a consolidation of editorial direction. News stories selected and edited to fit a political agenda are subject to an even baser criterion: profitability, which affects not only advertising but the way news is produced to give audiences what they want rather than what they need. The news is a commodity, in other words, and not a public service. With the commodification of news has come an explosion of opinion, commentators whose job is to fill the airtime of a 24-hour news cycle with “analysis” that is rarely expert but nevertheless reliably forceful and tailor-made to fluff the audience.

But wait, as the infomercials say, there’s more: the Internet. Yes, it’s a marvel of communications that makes the Tower of Babel look like a high school science fair project. Yet it also amplifies the very worse cognitive biases we are prone to simply as a matter of psychology. If you don’t agree with reality, it’s easy to find a website that will adjust it to your liking.

Of course, there are some excellent sources of information and expert analyses out there. There are, however, countless more sources of bad opinions and distorted, if not outright fabricated, facts. The challenge is to sort out the signal from the noise. Combined with the forces of consolidated media ownership and commoditization with the sheer volume of “information” (or hyperdata, which is a non-informative simulation of information) and we see the crux of the crisis: an inability to agree on what constitutes reality, let alone agree on how best to resolve problems. (And I acknowledge the philosophical problem of arguing for an “objective reality,” but leaving aside the metaphysics let’s consider reality as our shared, verifiable experience of the world.)

Education. Education is a complex topic, of course, and a generational challenge. The struggle between public and private is a crucial battleground, but the question is timeless. What is the purpose of education, and what results do we expect from it? Partly, education has the role of indoctrination, which is only bad when it’s the wrong ideas being indoctrinated. (There’s a whole debate in that, naturally.) Education is also about, or should be, about teaching critical thinking skills and scientific literacy – in a word, Reason. Sometimes, it isn’t a particular perspective that is important but how one reaches that perspective and the extent we have the humility to change our perspective when presented with new evidence. Given the structural problems underlying the patchwork of educational systems, from funding to teacher training and retention, it’s not surprising that outcomes are wildly uneven even before we consider how politicized education is. It seems pretentious to suggest that “the people” are uneducated, and it’s clearly a risky proposition because it depends entirely on what we rate as “educated.” There’s also the risk of overestimating the effects of education, since many societies have been ruined by educated but morally or emotionally deficient political classes.

But the problem can be stated that while people may not necessarily be uneducated, they might be mis-educated, a phenomena that is obscured by the relentless focus on metrics and other so-called innovations resulting from applying the industrial revolution to the classroom model. In short, the problem is a lack of critical thinking capable of mitigating our cognitive biases along with a lack of humility in terms of our knowledge and capacity for reason. The problem isn’t confined to opinions based on faulty reasoning and bad facts, but extends to the cultural attitude that we must preserve our sense of rightness - our prestige and our power - over reality.

There’s more to be said, of course, about any of these three elements; these are just a sketch. The next question is: what does it all mean when put together?

To be continued…

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