The state of the union is extremely precarious. Regardless of anything our fraudulent president might have to say when the delayed (through his own arrogance and stupidity) State of the Union address eventually takes place, it is beyond dispute that the United States is more polarized today than at any time since the Civil War.
To say we are “polarized,” though, is an incomplete explanation. Further, it implies a rough equivalency between the two estranged sides. There is no equivalency. On one side there is liberal democracy. On the other, a crude, atavistic nationalism that is being used by the extremely wealthy to further their own interests.
To make matters worse, the same grim scenario is now playing out in Europe. Nationalism is growing so rapidly there that 30 prominent European intellectuals recently issued a call to action to defend democracy. Many of the phrases in their brief document could be applied to the U.S. as well:
“A politics of disdain for intelligence and culture will have triumphed. There will be explosions of xenophobia and antisemitism.”
“We believe it [liberal democracy] remains the one force today virtuous enough to ward off the new signs of totalitarianism that drag in their wake the old miseries of the dark ages.”
“In response to the nationalist and identitarian onslaught, we must rediscover the spirit of activism or accept that resentment and hatred will surround and submerge us.”
There is, though, one important distinction which may yet be America’s salvation. Europe is a collection of nation-states attempting to act within a common framework (the EU). We are a collection of states attempting to act within a national framework.
The importance of our national framework was clearly evident during Trump’s recent, longest-ever government shutdown, when planes couldn’t land at LaGuardia and millions couldn’t get paid or live their normal lives.
Every American citizen depends upon the U.S. government, whether they acknowledge it or not. It is these ligaments, these much-maligned civil servants, that currently hold us together. Trump and the Republicans would retain only enough government power to maintain their place at the top.
We must fight, as Europe must, to keep liberal democracy in place. Without it, we will have no union.
If you’re the sort of person who believes in moral truths such as murder should be punished, disadvantaged people should be offered a hand and lies should be unmasked (and a majority of Americans still hold these beliefs), then you’ve been having a hard time with the news lately. The ongoing dismantling of American values is a hard thing to witness every day. It’s no wonder that people sometimes turn away, seeking whatever relief they can find elsewhere.
Hobbies are one way to take some time out. In my case, quite literally—I’ve developed a new appreciation of the nuances of horology.
Some time back, I was superficially into watches, primarily as a status thing I must admit. Rolex, Omega and Tag Heuer seemed like essential business accessories. Now, I have a renewed appreciation for the art of watchmaking itself and status is no longer a consideration per se. I’m glad to have outgrown my former shallowness.
The person most responsible for my renewed and deepened interest in fine watches is the novelist Gary Shteyngart. His most recent book, Lake Success, features a protagonist (hedge fund manager Barry Cohen) who is a WIS (Watch Idiot Savant). The novel is quite good in its own right, by the way; it’s made the annual New York Times 100 Notable Books list.
Thus inspired, I proceeded to bring myself up to speed on the current state of the watch industry. Here are a few things I learned:
Rolex is the only high-end watch most people know. They think it is either the ne plus ultra (not true) or gaudy, overpriced crap (also not true).
Since the quartz crisis of the eighties and early nineties, the Swiss watch industry has largely recovered. Most WIS people prefer mechanical movements on aesthetic grounds, though they remain less accurate than quartz.
One company—Seiko—makes very high quality watches at every price point, from $100 or so to $50,000-plus (via the Grand Seiko line).
If you’d like to explore for yourself, check out Hodinkee, Worn and Wound and A Blog to Watch (Shteyngart occasionally writes for Hodinkee). You’ll rapidly pick up nuances along with fundamentals: the very wide range of brands, including some small Kickstarter-launched companies; the technical aspects of fine watchmaking; the rich history behind the storied names. There are many, many video reviews out there (check The Urban Gentry channel on YouTube), along with various helpful forums (try Watchuseek).
I wound up (pun intended) refurbishing a couple of vintage Tag Heuers and buying a range of Seikos at various price points. My favorite watch so far is the Seiko SARB035, the cream-dial beauty in the photo above. It, along with its black-dial sibling the SARB033, have recently been discontinued, so their prices have edged past $500 and are still rising. But they could cost two or three times that amount and still represent tremendous value—see the numerous reviews (for example, here and here) comparing them to Rolex or Grand Seiko models to see what I mean.
My SARB035 was purchased to mark a milestone. I’ve owned a Rolex Explorer II in the past, and it is not unreasonable to compare the Seiko to the Rolex, despite the wide divergence in their price points. As for future milestones, I’d like to mark them with a Nomos, probably a Rolex again, and (ultimately) a Grand Seiko model. But that’s off in the future. For now, my little foray into horology has enabled me to temporarily escape the horrors of the news cycle. But only temporarily.
Whatever outside interest you can find to distract yourself, go for it—everyone needs a break now and then. But be sure to come back. You’re going to be needed.
As the midterms approach, some people are expressing hope that things can begin to change. If only the Democrats can take the House, at least there will be some check on Republican power, they say.
I believe this is short-sighted, wishful thinking. The Democrats could take all of Congress, and take back the presidency in 2020, and there would still be some 40% of Americans festering in ignorance and hatred. Despite its name, this country has been only sporadically united, and then only under severe external threat (financial ruin, world war). We have always been divided. I believe it’s time to acknowledge this fundamental truth once and for all.
Creating separate blue and red Americas is fraught with danger, of course. Yet the alternative—trying to remain together—is at least as perilous. Hatred and violence are growing by the day, and the current nation’s gun “policies” are insane. Rather than the constant, growing battle for social and cultural supremacy, why not let each side go its own way? Why not appoint ambassadors from each side to negotiate a separation agreement?
Well, one reason is that the more perceptive residents of Red America would quickly recognize they were getting the short end of the stick. The international power and clout of America reside largely in the blue states, as does America’s intellectual and cultural capital. The ordinary red(neck) citizenry might say “good riddance,” but the smarter denizens of Texas and Missouri would soon realize they’d be at a considerable disadvantage as a stand-alone country.
Does the above paragraph reflect my anger and contempt for Trump-supporting America? You’re goddamned right it does—political animus is by no means restricted to the backward-looking heartland.
What, then, is the answer? Should Blue America simply secede? Much as I’d love to live in that new country, the answer is, probably not—secession would almost certainly lead to some sort of new, 21st century civil war, or at the very least to an escalation of the already intolerable level of everyday violence.
We’re at an impasse, folks. What to do with that problematic 40%? The Democratic Party doesn’t seem capable of taking and holding power in this country. And holding power would be necessary, if for no other reason than to reestablish a strong public education system to stamp out the appalling ignorance that underlies our present situation.
With all its inherent difficulties, then, some sort of formal separation seems to be our best bet going forward. But it won’t be easy.
Often, an important new book is said to be “thought-provoking.” James Bridle’s New Dark Age aims to be literally thought-provoking—one of the book’s central contentions is that we have entered a new, dimly lit era, engendered by proliferating technology in every walk of life, which has clouded our ability to see and think clearly. Acknowledging this actual state of affairs, Bridle believes, is a necessary first step toward coming to grips with our current reality.
“We know more and more about the world,” Bridle writes, “while being less and less able to do anything about it.” New Dark Age traces this information overload (which produces confusion rather than knowledge) to computers and concomitant technology, and to our faith in and dependence upon technology in general. We have collectively bet that technology was our future, Bridle notes, and have thus effectively foreclosed that future (hence the book’s subtitle). Instead of a technology-driven golden age, we have today’s world of increasing environmental threat (to which server farms contribute significantly, BTW), political dysfunction and communications devolution, including the increasing inability to distinguish truth from falsehood. Trump and Brexit are but symptoms, and everyone is affected to a greater or lesser degree.
To some extent, the author believes, this new darkness can be a positive development, if we will only acknowledge it. We need to understand that we are unable to understand if we are to regain the agency we require to move forward. We need to stop believing in technology without question and start questioning it instead. We need to think about every aspect of what we are doing.
Bridle, who is a visual artist as well as a writer and technologist, provides numerous examples of technology gone wrong, from rogue algorithms that create pornographic cartoons aimed at children on YouTube to growing surveillance here and abroad to the increasing threat of widespread automation.
Facebook is a timely and accessible example. Apart from the role it played in helping to make Trump president (see: Cambridge Analytica), apart from the role it continues to play in fostering turmoil, apart from the self-contained, reinforcing bubbles of “likes” it places its users in, thereby underscoring social and political division, Facebook has an addictive quality for many of its users which may be even more insidious. And, by its very nature, it encourages the superficial while discouraging concentrated thought.
I still have a Facebook account, though I very seldom use it. Yet I have dear friends who practically live on the platform. My interactions with them on Facebook are akin to seeing them a block away in the city, headed in the other direction, and giving them a cursory wave. Facebook is distancing, despite its promise of making it easy to “keep in touch.” I will probably post a link to this review there, although it is essentially pointless, simply a habit because Medium makes it easy to do. Likewise with Twitter. If I take New Dark Age to heart, I’ll need to stop doing that.
(At least Medium attracts people interested in longer reads, though it’s not without its own issues.)
To sum up: if you’re feeling overwhelmed by life in general today, try to make time to read this book and, especially, to think about what you’ve read. It doesn’t provide many answers but it will help you view today’s problems from a different and more conscious perspective, which is certainly a step in the right direction.
Two recent opinion pieces in the New York Times sum up the miserable state of the country as another July 4 has come and gone. The first, published on July 3, is headed “America Started Over Once. Can We Do It Again?” It describes the post-Civil War Amendments to the Constitution, with particular emphasis on the 14th Amendment, which includes these lines:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Simple, straightforward, but of course still unfulfilled. Yet the promise is there, clearly evident in the words “any person.” Unfortunately, as the Times notes, the promise is receding even further as the Supreme Court continues to tilt right.
The second piece, published by columnist Roger Cohen today, is headed “America Never Was, Yet Will Be.” The line is from the Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again,” and it too deals with a promise that remains unfulfilled. A deep, magnificent promise that was once resonantly symbolized by our Statue of Liberty. A promise still alive for many around the world, even in our current dark times, even if it can never be realized under Trump’s appalling administration.
In his poem, Hughes addresses America’s downtrodden, still plentiful today. Such people are the spiritual ancestors (I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart) of many of Trump’s current supporters, and those supporters remain fooled, too distracted by “fake news” to see the truth and act accordingly.
Here is “Let America Be America Again” in its entirety:
Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. Let it be the pioneer on the plain Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed— Let it be that great strong land of love Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, But opportunity is real, and life is free, Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. I am the red man driven from the land, I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek— And finding only the same old stupid plan Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope, Tangled in that ancient endless chain Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land! Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need! Of work the men! Of take the pay! Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil. I am the worker sold to the machine. I am the Negro, servant to you all. I am the people, humble, hungry, mean— Hungry yet today despite the dream. Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers! I am the man who never got ahead, The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream In the Old World while still a serf of kings, Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true, That even yet its mighty daring sings In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned That’s made America the land it has become. O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas In search of what I meant to be my home— For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore, And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea, And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me? Surely not me? The millions on relief today? The millions shot down when we strike? The millions who have nothing for our pay? For all the dreams we’ve dreamed And all the songs we’ve sung And all the hopes we’ve held And all the flags we’ve hung, The millions who have nothing for our pay— Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again— The land that never has been yet— And yet must be—the land where every man is free. The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME— Who made America, Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain, Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose— The steel of freedom does not stain. From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives, We must take back our land again, America!
O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath— America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies, We, the people, must redeem The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. The mountains and the endless plain— All, all the stretch of these great green states— And make America again!
I went through the American public school system at a time when it was highly regarded, at least in many states. In school, I learned about a number of important American historical events, including slavery and the Civil War. I also learned about American’s westward expansion and the concept of “manifest destiny.” But I was not taught about lynching (which, if it was mentioned at all, was only referenced in passing) or the massive genocide conducted against Native Americans.
Things didn’t improve much during my first year at the state university, where I read purported American history written by Samuel Eliot Morison and others of his ilk that elided many essential events and facts (I later transferred to a better school). In fact, it wasn’t until after college, when I discovered The Nation and Howard Zinn, that I began to piece together some understanding of this country’s genuine history, including long-running atrocities like lynching in America.
Late last month, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama. The memorial is an astounding creation, documenting the true history of the racist terror campaign behind lynching like nothing else before it. A product of the Equal Justice Initiative and its extraordinary founder and executive director Bryan Stevenson, the memorial and its adjacent Legacy Museum catalog some 4,400 lynchings in total, including hundreds which had gone undocumented until now.
The memorial’s centerpiece consists of some 800 rusted steel columns suspended over a descending walkway. Each column is etched with the name of an American county and the people who were lynched there (many of the names are listed as “unknown”). Some of the killings are described in short summaries along the walk. For example (from the New York Times): Parks Banks, lynched in Mississippi in 1922 for carrying a photograph of a white woman; Caleb Gadly, hanged in Kentucky in 1894 for “walking behind the wife of his white employer”; Mary Turner, who after denouncing her husband’s lynching by a rampaging white mob, was hung upside down, burned and then sliced open so that her unborn child fell to the ground.
Stevenson took his inspiration in part from the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, believing that a single, national memorial was the most effective way to depict the scale of the horror. Germany and South Africa have done a far better job than the United States of confronting their horrific pasts, even if elements of those ugly legacies seem to be on the rise again in both countries. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a breakthrough first step for the U. S. in confronting the evils of its past—and its present too, of course.
But this particular evil had a distinctly local face as well. Whole families would make a festive outing of a lynching, the kids running around with horrific grins on their grimy little faces, the adults smiling malevolently. This was evil with a lasting legacy, still very much with us today.
Even so, the memorial offers some reasons for optimism. The site also houses duplicates of every one of the steel columns, which are intended to travel to the counties where the lynchings were carried out. People in those counties can request “their” column, but to do so they must demonstrate that they have made efforts in their communities to “address racial and economic injustice.”
So I wake up this morning to the cheery retro sound of the Beach Boys on my clock radio: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Hmm—it usually plays Handel. But the Golden Oldie turns out to be a harbinger of better things to come as I drift downstairs for my first cup of coffee and fire up Firefox to check the Times site for the morning news.
I can’t believe what I’m reading—it seems as though the whole world has had some sort of spiritual awakening overnight while I slept. I give my coffee cup a suspicious glance—is this my usual blend?—take a cautious sip, and try to assimilate what I see and hear in numerous video clips and read in various breathless reports.
Still dazed, I try jotting down some essential points from all this incredible news. Here, in no particular order, are my notes:
Donald Trump announces that he now sees a new way forward to Making America Great Again, and will appoint Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as his closest advisers. He implies that, while he will retain the title of President for the remainder of his term, Sanders and Warren will be running the country on a day-to-day basis.
Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan both decide to resign from their respective leadership positions in the Senate and the House, and call upon their Republican colleagues to do the same. “It’s time to make room for more progressive thinking in Congress,” they say in a joint press release.
Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un announce that both Russia and North Korea will abandon their nuclear arsenals at the conclusion of the upcoming summit with President Trump in May. “Nuclear weapons have cast a shadow of terror over the world for far too long,” the two leaders say in a coordinated announcement. Other nuclear powers suggest they will follow suit.
Benjamin Netanyahu announces his resignation as Prime Minister of Israel, and also presents a comprehensive peace proposal that includes restoring all appropriate Palestinian lands and making generous reparation payments for all who died at the hands of Israeli forces since the nation’s founding. The proposal is widely applauded in the West and the Muslim world alike.
Finally, I see that Wayne LaPierre, spokesman for the National Rifle Association, has decided to step down as well. He cites a profound change of heart as the reason, and urges people in general to turn in their guns and hunters to give up their sport. In a press release, P. J. Muddbottom of Barksplit, WI, a hunter, is quoted as saying he agrees with LaPierre and will henceforth stop hunting. “I never did like the way squirrel tasted anyway,” Muddbottom says.
Then I feel a gentle hand on my shoulder. “Wake up,” my wife says. “Here’s some coffee.” Puzzled, I try to point to the cup I already have but it’s not there. My laptop screen is dark. Have I really dreamt all of this?
I thank my wife and start up my computer for what seems the second time. I open the Times home page and see the world is conducting business as usual after all. I rub my eyes. My notepad with all its fantastic good news is nowhere to be seen. My coffee tastes bitter.
This morning’s New York Times carried one of the most telling op-ed pieces I have read in quite some time. It enlightens all the more by its very predictability, coming right on schedule after the latest American mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. The piece is titled “Why Gun Culture Is So Strong in Rural America” and it was written by one Robert Leonard, who is news director for a couple of radio stations in rural Knoxville, Iowa. In it, Leonard attempts to make a case for “understanding” rural conservatives’ “first principles” and “ideals.”
Here’s a sample of Leonard’s argument:
“To my conservative friends, it’s a matter of liberty and personal responsibility. Even after a horrific event like the school shooting in Florida, where 17 people were killed, more gun control would be compromising those first principles. For them, compromising those principles would be even more horrific and detrimental to society than any shooting. What my conservative friends see is not gun control, but rather control, period.” (Emphasis mine.)
And there it is, plain as day: the “freedom” to own a firearm (a “first principle,” based on a distorted but Supreme Court-endorsed interpretation of the Second Amendment) is more important than the freedom to live for the children in Parkland or Newtown. Gun control would harm society more than any number of future mass shootings of children, toddlers, senior citizens and/or assorted men and women. Guns preempt people (at least the people unfortunate enough to be killed by them).
Leonard further explains that “Republicans think the fault lies with the person — the perpetrator of the evil. Bad choices result in bad things being done, in part because the perpetrator lacks the moral guidance the Christian faith provides.”
“The reaction to mass shootings highlights this difference,” he goes on to say. “Liberals blame the guns and want to debate gun control. For conservatives, the blame lies with the shooter, not the gun.”
This is so wrongheaded and simpleminded that it beggars belief. Rational people, liberals included, blame people for these shootings. People are imperfect—this is a universally acknowledged principle, yes? The basic reason that rational people want to impose gun control after these mass shootings is to prevent imperfect people from getting their hands on these weapons. As Britain and Australia have done. As the Scandinavian countries have done. All with demonstrably improved results, i.e., fewer mass shootings (none at all, in Australia’s case).
This is beneficent control. This is society coming together to produce a beneficial outcome for its members at large. It is the very opposite of the cult of the individual that has conservatives under its sway in this country.
There is no such control in America, and thanks to people like Leonard and his friends there likely never will be.
I despise the notion that someone’s “freedom” to own a gun is viewed as more important than someone else’s life.
I despise the fact that Democrats (“liberals”) consistently kowtow to these people, as Connor Lamb just did in Pennsylvania.
I despise the twisted nostalgia that romanticizes gun culture as heritage and a way of life. “It’s been many years since I hunted squirrels and rabbits with my Grandpa Leonard,” the writer says, before fondly recalling that “I retrieved the squirrel, still warm, in the cool Iowa summer morning, and laid it in the pile of four or five he had already shot.” What a tender childhood memory.
I despise our fragmented society for following its predictable path and normalizing the shooting in Parkland, just as it has all the others. You think March For Our Lives will make a difference? Dream on.
I despise the New York Times for running this fallacious argument from the heartland without comment or context.
I despise self-deluded Middle Americans like Robert Leonard and his “conservative” friends. I despise the Republican Party (and the Democrats as well; see above). I despise the National Rifle Association.
I despise rational citizens, including myself, for failing to devise a way to overcome this grotesque American sickness.
But, I do salute Mr. Leonard for his inadvertent public service—his op-ed has made the crux of our cultural divide crystal clear. (I’d like to think this is why the Times published it.) His side (40 to 50% of the country, by most accounts) believes that gun control (merely control, not a ban as many would favor) is more horrific and detrimental to society than any shooting could ever be.
This is what we’re up against. Good God, America—how did we fall so far, so fast?
In absolute terms, humanity hasn’t been around very long at all. From our own perspective, though, evolution seems to be taking an eternity. As a species, we remain profoundly stupid.
We haven’t learned to share, or to work toward our common interests. We befoul our own nest. We continue to develop weapons which threaten annihilation. With every small step forward made by an Einstein, a Beethoven, a Tolstoy, the species as a whole has trouble following. We lurch toward progress, then rapidly retreat again—witness the 2016 U. S. election.
Do we need somebody—or something—smarter to step in and take charge? AI may fit the bill, especially artificial intelligence of the “superintelligence” variety discussed in Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom’s thought-provoking book of the same name.
But of course, as with all things human, the answer is not so straightforward. You may have read that scientific and tech luminaries such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have sounded warnings about the potential dangers of artificial intelligence technology. Indeed, Musk calls AI an “existential threat” to human civilization and has co-founded OpenAI, a non-profit, open-source AI research company, to try to foster collaboration in developing “friendly AI” as a result.
Bostrom sounds an alarm in Superintelligence, as well. The concern is that research into and continued development of AI might lead to an “intelligence explosion” that would create an entity or entities so much smarter than us that we would become redundant and dispensable. Bostrom has coined the term “Singleton” to designate such an all-controlling superintelligence. A “bad” Singleton would be the end of us.
However, a vein of optimism runs through Superintelligence, too. Bostrom believes, or would like to believe, that humanity has a potential “cosmic endowment” which could be realized through a benign superintelligence. He acknowledges that the odds would seem to be against this, and likens humanity and superintelligence to a child with an undetonated bomb in its hands. The core problem is one of control: how do we create a superintelligence that will not jettison humanity but rather work to enhance it?
We must, Bostrom says, “hold on to our humanity … maintain our groundedness, common sense, and good-humored decency even in the teeth of this most unnatural and inhuman problem. We need to bring all our human resourcefulness to bear on its solution.” This is, Bostrom maintains, “the essential task of our age.”
At a moment in history when bellicosity and benightedness are ascendant, this is a very tall order indeed. Yet contemplating Bostrom’s suggested cosmic endowment is a worthwhile exercise in staving off despair. One must hope there remain enough intelligent and altruistic people at work in the field of AI (and in every other important field) to make envisioning a better future viable.
Below, the text of a speech delivered by retiring Senator Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) earlier today. The occasion: Trump’s farcical announcement of “Fake Media Awards.” The Senator’s speech is a thoughtful, high-minded critique of Trump’s dangerous behavior requiring no further comment. Except: While I admire Flake for this speech, I feel his criticism of our sitting President could have been much harsher still. Trump is a reprehensible piece of shit* who is in the process of destroying this country. He needs to be called out as such, and stopped.
Mr. President, near the beginning of the document that made us free, our Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident….” So, from our very beginnings, our freedom has been predicated on truth. The founders were visionary in this regard, understanding well that good faith and shared facts between the governed and the government would be the very basis of this ongoing idea of America.
As the distinguished former member of this body, Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, famously said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” During the past year, I am alarmed to say that Senator Moynihan’s proposition has likely been tested more severely than at any time in our history.
It is for that reason that I rise today, to talk about the truth, and its relationship to democracy. For without truth, and a principled fidelity to truth and to shared facts, Mr. President, our democracy will not last.
2017 was a year which saw the truth — objective, empirical, evidence-based truth — more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government. It was a year which saw the White House enshrine “alternative facts” into the American lexicon, as justification for what used to be known simply as good old-fashioned falsehoods. It was the year in which an unrelenting daily assault on the constitutionally-protected free press was launched by that same White House, an assault that is as unprecedented as it is unwarranted. “The enemy of the people,” was what the president of the United States called the free press in 2017.
Mr. President, it is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his enemies. It bears noting that so fraught with malice was the phrase “enemy of the people,” that even Nikita Khrushchev forbade its use, telling the Soviet Communist Party that the phrase had been introduced by Stalin for the purpose of “annihilating such individuals” who disagreed with the supreme leader.
This alone should be a source of great shame for us in this body, especially for those of us in the president’s party. For they are shameful, repulsive statements. And, of course, the president has it precisely backward – despotism is the enemy of the people. The free press is the despot’s enemy, which makes the free press the guardian of democracy. When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that doesn’t suit him “fake news,” it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press.
I dare say that anyone who has the privilege and awesome responsibility to serve in this chamber knows that these reflexive slurs of “fake news” are dubious, at best. Those of us who travel overseas, especially to war zones and other troubled areas around the globe, encounter members of U.S. based media who risk their lives, and sometimes lose their lives, reporting on the truth. To dismiss their work as fake news is an affront to their commitment and their sacrifice.
According to the International Federation of Journalists, 80 journalists were killed in 2017, and a new report from the Committee to Protect Journalists documents that the number of journalists imprisoned around the world has reached 262, which is a new record. This total includes 21 reporters who are being held on “false news” charges.
Mr. President, so powerful is the presidency that the damage done by the sustained attack on the truth will not be confined to the president’s time in office. Here in America, we do not pay obeisance to the powerful – in fact, we question the powerful most ardently – to do so is our birthright and a requirement of our citizenship — and so, we know well that no matter how powerful, no president will ever have dominion over objective reality.
No politician will ever get to tell us what the truth is and is not. And anyone who presumes to try to attack or manipulate the truth to his own purposes should be made to realize the mistake and be held to account. That is our job here. And that is just as Madison, Hamilton, and Jay would have it.
Of course, a major difference between politicians and the free press is that the press usually corrects itself when it gets something wrong. Politicians don’t.
No longer can we compound attacks on truth with our silent acquiescence. No longer can we turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to these assaults on our institutions. And Mr. President, an American president who cannot take criticism – who must constantly deflect and distort and distract – who must find someone else to blame — is charting a very dangerous path. And a Congress that fails to act as a check on the president adds to the danger.
Now, we are told via Twitter that today the president intends to announce his choice for the “most corrupt and dishonest” media awards. It beggars belief that an American president would engage in such a spectacle. But here we are.
And so, 2018 must be the year in which the truth takes a stand against power that would weaken it. In this effort, the choice is quite simple. And in this effort, the truth needs as many allies as possible. Together, my colleagues, we are powerful. Together, we have it within us to turn back these attacks, right these wrongs, repair this damage, restore reverence for our institutions, and prevent further moral vandalism.
Together, united in the purpose to do our jobs under the Constitution, without regard to party or party loyalty, let us resolve to be allies of the truth — and not partners in its destruction.
It is not my purpose here to inventory all of the official untruths of the past year. But a brief survey is in order. Some untruths are trivial – such as the bizarre contention regarding the crowd size at last year’s inaugural.
But many untruths are not at all trivial – such as the seminal untruth of the president’s political career – the oft-repeated conspiracy about the birthplace of President Obama. Also not trivial are the equally pernicious fantasies about rigged elections and massive voter fraud, which are as destructive as they are inaccurate – to the effort to undermine confidence in the federal courts, federal law enforcement, the intelligence community and the free press, to perhaps the most vexing untruth of all – the supposed “hoax” at the heart of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
To be very clear, to call the Russia matter a “hoax” – as the president has many times – is a falsehood. We know that the attacks orchestrated by the Russian government during the election were real and constitute a grave threat to both American sovereignty and to our national security. It is in the interest of every American to get to the bottom of this matter, wherever the investigation leads.
Ignoring or denying the truth about hostile Russian intentions toward the United States leaves us vulnerable to further attacks. We are told by our intelligence agencies that those attacks are ongoing, yet it has recently been reported that there has not been a single cabinet-level meeting regarding Russian interference and how to defend America against these attacks. Not one. What might seem like a casual and routine untruth – so casual and routine that it has by now become the white noise of Washington – is in fact a serious lapse in the defense of our country.
Mr. President, let us be clear. The impulses underlying the dissemination of such untruths are not benign. They have the effect of eroding trust in our vital institutions and conditioning the public to no longer trust them. The destructive effect of this kind of behavior on our democracy cannot be overstated.
Mr. President, every word that a president utters projects American values around the world. The values of free expression and a reverence for the free press have been our global hallmark, for it is our ability to freely air the truth that keeps our government honest and keeps a people free. Between the mighty and the modest, truth is the great leveler. And so, respect for freedom of the press has always been one of our most important exports.
But a recent report published in our free press should raise an alarm. Reading from the story:
“In February…Syrian President Bashar Assad brushed off an Amnesty International report that some 13,000 people had been killed at one of his military prisons by saying, “You can forge anything these days, we are living in a fake news era.”
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has complained of being “demonized” by “fake news.” Last month, the report continues, with our President, quote “laughing by his side” Duterte called reporters “spies.”
In July, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro complained to the Russian propaganda outlet, that the world media had “spread lots of false versions, lots of lies” about his country, adding, “This is what we call ‘fake news’ today, isn’t it?”
There are more:
“A state official in Myanmar recently said, “There is no such thing as Rohingya. It is fake news,” referring to the persecuted ethnic group.
Leaders in Singapore, a country known for restricting free speech, have promised “fake news” legislation in the new year.”
And on and on. This feedback loop is disgraceful, Mr. President. Not only has the past year seen an American president borrow despotic language to refer to the free press, but it seems he has in turn inspired dictators and authoritarians with his own language. This is reprehensible.
We are not in a “fake news” era, as Bashar Assad says. We are, rather, in an era in which the authoritarian impulse is reasserting itself, to challenge free people and free societies, everywhere.
In our own country, from the trivial to the truly dangerous, it is the range and regularity of the untruths we see that should be cause for profound alarm, and spur to action. Add to that the by-now predictable habit of calling true things false, and false things true, and we have a recipe for disaster. As George Orwell warned, “The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.”
Any of us who have spent time in public life have endured news coverage we felt was jaded or unfair. But in our positions, to employ even idle threats to use laws or regulations to stifle criticism is corrosive to our democratic institutions. Simply put: it is the press’s obligation to uncover the truth about power. It is the people’s right to criticize their government. And it is our job to take it.
What is the goal of laying siege to the truth? President John F. Kennedy, in a stirring speech on the 20th anniversary of the Voice of America, was eloquent in answer to that question:
“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”
Mr. President, the question of why the truth is now under such assault may well be for historians to determine. But for those who cherish American constitutional democracy, what matters is the effect on America and her people and her standing in an increasingly unstable world — made all the more unstable by these very fabrications. What matters is the daily disassembling of our democratic institutions.
We are a mature democracy – it is well past time that we stop excusing or ignoring – or worse, endorsing — these attacks on the truth. For if we compromise the truth for the sake of our politics, we are lost.
I sincerely thank my colleagues for their indulgence today. I will close by borrowing the words of an early adherent to my faith that I find has special resonance at this moment. His name was John Jacques, and as a young missionary in England he contemplated the question: “What is truth?” His search was expressed in poetry and ultimately in a hymn that I grew up with, titled “Oh Say, What is Truth.” It ends as follows:
“Then say, what is truth? ‘Tis the last and the first,
For the limits of time it steps o’er.
Tho the heavens depart and the earth’s fountains burst.
Truth, the sum of existence, will weather the worst,
Eternal… unchanged… evermore.”
Thank you, Mr. President. I yield the floor.
* Were the President anyone other than who he is, I wouldn’t use this sort of language. But if he can use “shithole” to describe the home countries of many Americans, I feel free to use “piece of shit” to describe him.