Two complementary columns here on New Year’s Eve raised my awareness — and concerns — about the besieged democratic republic we inhabit.
In “Swimming against the current of lies and hatred,” Steve McGehee describes how a publisher of a small newspaper faced “an organized effort … to cancel both subscriptions and display advertising” after printing letters critical of a city’s police and mayor. She was a “principled journalist,” McGehee writes. “My old friend also recognized that a vital role of newspaper reporting is to hold governments accountable.”
Adjacent to McGehee’s column was one by John Micek: “A reminder of what we’ve gained, and could yet lose.” Micek describes interpretive plaques in Colonial Williamsburg that recount historical events of our American democracy. ”Every step,” he observes, “is a step backward into our tangled, jumbled, and often painful history as a nation.”
If we’d lived in 1776, he reminds us, we were “still subject to the whims of a king an ocean away.” For decades following 1865, we might have known someone who “owned” someone else. And until 1920, women weren’t voting.
Micek laments current efforts to “preserve a … version of our national story … that prioritizes white and privileged voices over those who have been marginalized for too long.” He says the full American story can’t be told “without including the voices of its native people, the enslaved and formerly enslaved, upon whose backs the country was painfully brought to life.”
That “full American story,” and less dramatic ones, are found in the archives of now defunct newspapers like the one McGehee described. Our free press provides records of history, ancient and modern.
Micek suggests our country is “at a tipping point as a nation.” We’re arguing over critical race theory, abortion, who can vote. In short, we’re arguing over truth: What is it, who can be believed, why does it matter?
Information has never flowed more freely nor so destructively. It’s easy to blame the media — mainstream, social, left wing, right wing — for distorting “truth.” We condemn CNN and Fox commentators for irresponsible, biased reporting, for close connections to politicians, who themselves lie. Yet, I’d venture many of us also lie, when expedient, and politicians come from our own ranks.
We condemn everyone except the only ones who can ultimately right these wrongs — ourselves. Each of us. We are the ones who consume these lies unquestioningly, the gibberish, the garbage. We breathe the fetid breath coming from the mouths of those commentators and politicians. We gasp, “tsk, tsk,” even as we continue to inhale deception.
The Palouse has a well-educated population. I’m guessing nearly all our adults are high school graduates. An unusually high percentage are college graduates, many with advanced degrees. Somewhere along the line we learned to read. But did we learn to read carefully, cautiously? Did we learn to question information we imbibed; did we learn to think?
Even more important, how well do we recognize our own biases? How do those biases predispose us to accept, or reject, what we hear, view, or read? As children we absorb family values. Even rebellious teenagers retain values learned in childhood. By the time we enter the workforce, those biases are established.
We choose friends from among those most like ourselves. This creates an echo chamber that reinforces our beliefs. How many of us go out of our way to seek those of a different color, of a different “class,” or of a different faith? Do we really understand how “the other half” lives? Why bother?
We bother because it’s in our interests to understand the nuances of society’s injustices. We need truthful information that helps us vote intelligently. We need media that generates such information and provides access to multiple points of view. We need to train ourselves, to learn how to filter, to judge those multiple points of view. Finally, we need honest leaders who not only guarantee the right of all to vote, but who also encourage each to vote.
If our democracy is at a tipping point, it’s we who must tip it in a positive direction. Can we recognize our biases, filter what we learn, and create a better society? And what happens if we can’t?
Don’t even think about it!