Don’t Take My Word For It
I’d like to pitch you an idea I’ve been kicking around for a new episode of The Twilight Zone. Like all the best ones, it takes place about 15 minutes into the future. It goes like this:
Humankind, having long toiled in the shadow of ignorance, has finally constructed a great repository to contain the sum total of human knowledge. It’s not just accessible, but ubiquitously so: every home contains a terminal that can access it, as does practically every pocket. They’ve even learned how to strap primitive computers to their wrists so that they can query it for information, any time and anywhere they should desire to do so.
But a strange thing starts to happen. A gulf begins to widen between what they want to believe and what is actually so. The vast network of information they’ve built for themselves——an “Internet,” if you will——is used less and less as a tool for personal edification, and more and more to engage in increasingly trivial pursuits: Fetching sports scores. Celebrity gossip. Compulsive masturbation.
Every so often, elections are held to determine which set of people, priorities, and principles should govern and guide this species. Countries trot out their best and worst candidates, and allow them to do battle in public so that the population has a chance to weigh their words against both conventional wisdom and the available empirical evidence, and decide for themselves which candidates best represent the current consensus on matters of State, matters of Science, and matters of the human conscience.
At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.
This process, politics, they call it, should have been a collective celebration of intellectual, economic, and moral due diligence. But they ignore the weight of this awesome responsibility. They turn their backs on the pursuit of Truth and the Second Opinion. They turn this process, this Democracy, into a great ship steered not by Reason, but by the Cult of Personality, the pursuit of Profit, and by whichever person or persons manage to scream the loudest into the void.
It’s the stuff of nightmares.
But we’re living it each and every day.
According to a 2013 Rasmussen poll, 83% of American adults consider themselves to be “informed citizens,” while only a paltry 12% admit they don’t know as much as they should. But if this were so, none of the current crop of GOP presidential hopefuls would be polling nearly as well as they are. Each of them would have withdrawn from the public eye in a brief cloud of dust and ignominy the instant they chose to lie to the American people. In point of fact, if America was as informed as it claims to be, the entire Republican party would likely have ceased to exist a generation ago.
But the fact that it hasn’t is depressing as hell, because there’s any number of wonderful tools at our disposal to help us get to the Truth——or, at least, get us pointed in its general direction.
Websites like PolitiFact (winner of the Pulitzer Prize) and FactCheck (also the recipient of numerous honors and awards) are great places to start. Christ, even Wikipedia is a good starting point; it’s like Cliff’s Notes for everyday life, which means using it to bone up on a particular topic is literally the least we can do.
Anyway, I have just one point to make here, really. It probably shouldn’t have taken this long to get to it, but I like to ramble. That point is this:
Don’t take my word for it. I know all about the world and how it works.
When I tell people that Bernie Sanders’ social and economic proposals——things like universal health care, infrastructure spending, free public college tuition, and a more robust Social Security——would save us, in the long run, many times more than they would cost, it’s not because I choose to believe this; it’s because I’ve read what world-renowned economists have to say, and have weighed it against the opposition.
When I tell people that global warming is not just real, but made orders of magnitude worse by humankind’s recklessness, it’s not because I choose to believe this, or because I earned a climatology degree in my off hours; it’s because science has done what it does best: studied the problem from every angle, and offered us something exceedingly rare: near-universal consensus.
And when I tell people that Jesus never existed, it’s not because I choose to believe that. I mean, why would I want that to be true? No; I say these things because there’s not a scrap of physical or historical evidence to suggest that Jesus Christ, the son of the One True God, ever walked this earth. I mention this in the context of politics only because, for reasons I can’t fathom, Jesus remains the figurehead for a particularly vocal branch of the Political Right.
Look: I’m not writing this because I think I’m special, or particularly clever. In fact, I have an almost breathtakingly limited understanding of the world. We all do, in our way, which makes it a moral imperative for us to challenge Conventional Wisdom, Popular Opinion, and especially ourselves. To question, in other words, familiar refrains such as these:
A long time ago, someone started telling people that there was an invisible man in the sky who starts heaping judgments upon us the instant we’re born.
Somewhat more recently, someone else decided to start telling Americans that our economy performs best when taxes on our “job creators” are allowed to approach zero.
Other people tell us that immigrants steal jobs, that vaccines cause autism, that if everyone carried a gun nobody would ever be shot, that GMOs are dangerous, that marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol, and that gay marriage will be the end of the traditional family.
Bunk, all of it. But you don’t have to take my word for it.
Again, 83% of American adults consider themselves to be “informed citizens.” So let’s prove it. We’re all of us neck-deep in election season, which makes these numbers more important than ever.
This election cycle has become something much more than a beauty contest between familiar political theories; what’s at stake is vastly more important. It’s going to determine whether we’re even capable any longer of engaging in Reason, or whether we prefer the comfort that ignorance provides.
Because, when the list of authoritative voices pointing out that the most recent debate between Republican presidential candidates (one of only two major political parties left in this country) was a “dumpster fire” of “grotesque lies” grows so long that I have to really, really pad this sentence to find room to link to them all, you know America has a really frightening problem on its hands.
Many in America, both on that stage and sitting at home, will be (and have been) quick to denounce that kind of overwhelming response as the bias of the wicked “Liberal Media.” Others will maintain that the thing most frequently mistaken for liberal bias is simply Objective Truth.
But the cool part is that you get to decide for yourself, no matter what I (or anyone else) chooses to tell you. Just, please, don’t take that process lightly. We’re not deciding what to eat for lunch, or what color of pants to buy, or which Flavor of the Month has the most X-Factor; we’re choosing the leader of the most powerful nation on earth. Politics is not sports, or celebrity gossip; it’s actually, you know, important. There are consequences. It demands that we take part with an open mind, and without the burden of preconceptions.
Because reality and morality are not subjective, unless you’re arguing about the merits of Star Trek versus Star Wars, whether the finale of Lost was emotionally satisfying, or whether Ghost is a better band than Blue Öyster Cult.
For the record: the correct answers are, in order, Star Trek; Yes, unless you’re made of stone; and Ghost, forever and always. But that’s just my opinion.