Sunday, November 01, 2009

Civics in the age of (dis)information

One of the ongoing issues plaguing American politics, and by extension, any pretense towards dialogue, is the institutionalized ignorance brought about by our continued failure to properly provide instruction to our young in the area of civics. While other advanced societies, mainly western, provide a strong foundation to children in school, the U.S. fails mightily in this area. As a result, we must bear with ignorance at every turn, and often, turn of the radio knob, or channel scroll.

I met a woman a few years ago. We connected on a personal level, mainly through my books, and some of the things I’d written about my former hometown. Initially, our conversations were based on mutual interests and passion for people and for local places. Over time, however, I realized that we had political differences that were impossible to bridge. I was a left-leaning independent voter, with quasi-libertarian tendencies, and she was a right-wing ideologue, supporting people and ideas that I found abhorrent, and intellectually dishonest. Some of these ideas were plain bat-shit crazy.

This isn’t limited to my own small circle of acquaintances and the people I brush up against, either. Take for instance the entire “birther movement.” This group/movement has as their foundation the belief that Mr. Obama is ineligible to be our President because he is not a “natural born” citizen.

I had been hearing rumblings about this from the far right edges of the political landscape, but Elizabeth Kolbert’s article in The New Yorker helped bring it into sharper focus for me. Kolbert cites a poll indicating twenty-eight percent of Republicans surveyed don’t think that Obama was born in the U.S., and another 30 percent said they were unsure. Kolbert’s point, a somewhat scary one, is that over half of Republicans surveyed by this poll doubt the legitimacy of the U.S. government.

Tying this into technology, Kolbert references the writings of Cass R. Sunstein. Sustein taught for 27 years at the University of Chicago Law School. He now heads up the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. He is known as a prolific legal scholar who has produced a wide swath of written material, including four books on the topic of information, or better, the avalanche of information available via technology. Kolbert uses the term “virtual civics” to classify Sunstein’s four books about issues pertaining to truth, and the idea that if information is good, then more information must be better; or as Sunstein views it, “the Web has a feature that is even more salient: at the same time it makes more news available, it also makes more news avoidable.” Basically, if something doesn’t square with my presuppositions, often wedded to an ideological position, then to hell with it—I’ll just ignore it. Consumers can now filter what they see or hear. (See/hear no evil)

In 2.0, Sunstein writes, “I do not mean to deny the obvious fact that any system that allows for freedom of choice will create some balkanization of opinion.” Choice now has been taken to a new level, and the consequences are not positive, in my opinion.

Group polarization—people’s tendency to become more extreme after speaking with other likeminded adherents—is becoming increasingly widespread and has infected American politics like the plague. This isn’t the bastion of right-wingers, either. Spend an hour, or so, reading the comment sections of Huffpo, the DailyKos and other well-trafficked left-wing blog sites, and you'll recognize that this tendency exists at both ends of the spectrum.

Because I’ve read Richard Hofstadter extensively, and also because much of what he wrote looks back on a time that now can be viewed within a historical context—helping provide a framework for our current period—I was pleased when Kolbert referenced the following snippet of Hofstadter’s description of an equally dark period, some 45 years ago, during the era of Barry Goldwater. Hofstadter wrote, “I call it (that period, which could easily be describing our current time) the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

Never before has the need to beef up civics education been any more urgent than during our present time of disinformation.

You can test your own level of civics literacy here.

Here are my results:

You answered 28 out of 33 correctly — 84.85 %

Average score for this quiz during November: 77.7%
Average score: 77.7%

I missed the following (with their correct answers)-

Answers to Your Missed Questions:
Question #6 - D. establishing an official religion for the United States
Question #7 - D. Gettysburg Address
Question #10 - C. Religion
Question #26 - C. revenue minus expenses
Question #33 - D. tax per person equals government spending per person


ashok said...

Just wanted to say thanks for the link! Curious how you came across my blog: I'm having a lot of trouble getting found by others, but recently things have been better.

Jim said...

@ ashok

I happened to be searching for links to RHofstadter's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," which the writer (Elizabeth Kolbert) in the excellent piece from The New Yorker referenced and discovered your post from Oct. 27. Since I like to include links that are more diverse than always linking to Wikipedia entries, I thought your post would be an excellent one for Hofstadter.

I can see from your recent posts that I'll be stopping back to peruse some of your other posts.

Interesting site.

Likewise, I appreciate that you took the time to leave a comment here.

ashok said...

Thanks again for the link - will add you to the blogroll, hope it helps with traffic some.

Delfina said...

I've always been baffled by the intransigence of so many in the hard-right camp to refuse to listen to reason or even the most basic facts. I've been told it comes from a need for certainty, which doesn't allow for any wavering or considering opposing viewpoints, because it would be too much of a shock: "Gasp, I could be wrong?!"

But speaking of civics education, I've talked to someone who is training to be a teacher, and I was horrified to learn that she is expected to tell her students that all points of view are biased and therefore there is no truth, only opinions. This is in an attempt to be "fair" to all points of view. Including the ones that are batshit-crazy, apparently.

Jim said...


I loved your use of the word, "intransigence."

Like you, this tendency of members of the camp you described (which includes family members) to consider facts, data, and anecdotal evidence that their ideas don't work is frustrating at the very least, and more often, maddening.

It's difficult being someone that puts considerable effort into knowing information and facts, and trying to put it into some frame of reference, or context, often historical, and then having it "pissed upon" because it doesn't jive with the lunacy of the day of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, or some other ideologue occupying the weeds on the far right fringes of dialogue. Hell, calling it dialogue is way too kind on my part.

It sounds like the person that you know that is training to be a teacher has to maintain an educational version of Fox's "fair and balanced" policy. That's truly disturbing--all opinions being equally valid. Certainly not very encouraging at the very least.