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Post-Truth and the New “American”

e pluribus unum

The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities. – Theodore Roosevelt

We unhappy citizens of the twenty first century have a problem with truth, which is that we don’t care about it unless it agrees with what we already believe. There is a certain emotional satisfaction to be had in accepting and responding to simplistic explanations for our dissatisfaction, focusing our anger and pointing the finger of blame toward the “other,” which is whoever we presently choose as our enemy. This will include foreigners, immigrants, people of a different skin tone, people with accents, people who differ with us religiously, socially, politically or culturally. At the same time it is embarrassingly simple to disseminate comfortable lies, either twisted to fit our prejudices or simply made up. Anyone with an Internet connection can do it. It is now possible for almost anyone to construct entire worldviews having only tenuous connections to reality — or none —  and to have them accepted by large numbers of people. The reader should note here that I am not referring to “them,” but to us.

Add to this that what were once respected sources of information are no longer believed.  Granted, they are not believed because their aim is not to report, but to profit. Keep the people riled up and they’ll keep clicking your ads. And this leaves aside that mainstream information outlets in the United States are controlled by only six mega-corporations, that are obviously going to look after only their own interests. There is little or no sense of responsibility toward the preservation of democracy, which is the basis for a free and unregulated press. As a result sources of a quality once reserved for tin foil hat wearing conspiracy theorists now come to enjoy equal status with once venerable mainstream outlets. “News” channels that publish fabricated information are accepted as “reliable” sources of information; no need to fact check, these are the facts. If no source is legitimate, you might as well adhere to the ones that cater to your preconceptions.

Thus an alternate reality is formed based on lies, half-truths, and paranoia, and is soon populated by like-minded souls whose delusions are amplified by each reinforcing the other’s. This reality, a sort of secular Twilight Zone, comes into contact with the world the rest of us inhabit only when its denizens strike out in opposition to an imagined threat (Obama is a foreign-born Muslim mole intent on delivering the United States to a worldwide Islamic conspiracy, the police have declared war on black people, Obama’s coming to get your guns, The US Army is going to invade Texas and declare martial law). But in this striking out real people are harmed and too many die. And the rest of us scratch our heads and wonder what the hell is happening to our world.

A press that is controlled by the government is a threat to democracy. But a press that is free to publicize lunacy as fact is equally dangerous. “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities,” wrote Voltaire. The free press has worked in the United States without much restraint because in the past for the most part citizens recognized a fundamental same-ness. We recognized each other as Americans, even if those “others” were confused or misled. I remember my dad taught me “I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” But today, I think in large part because of this unrestrained freedom of information, we have lost that ideological unity. There is not one America; there are as many Americas as there are imagined tribes claiming legitimacy to what America is supposed to be. Not what it should be but what it is supposed (assumed) to be.  If you and I differ, you’re not a misguided American, you’re not even American. You’re an alien, and more likely than not a threat to “real” America.

American unity has been threatened many times but has been maintained mostly because of our fundamental ideological unity. The one time that unity was irrevocably lost, the result was civil war. Is that what we want? I don’t think so. I think if we shook each other’s hand or gave each other a hug, we would remember that we are one. E Pluribus Unum.

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