Tag Archives: Donald Trump

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Comfortable with Not Knowing

The logic of willful ignorance outlined in this brief 2016 piece still seems valid today.  It fits our age of like a comfortable bad habit.

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In his sobering and seminal study, Democracy Without Citizens, Robert Entman dwells on the irony of living in an information-rich age among uninformed citizens.  There is a rich paradox to a culture where most have a virtual library available on any digital device, and yet would struggle to pass a third-grade civics test.  According to the Annenberg Policy Center completed a while ago only one in three Americans can name our three branches of government. And only the same lone third could identify the party that controls each of the two houses of Congress.  Fully a fifth of their sample thought that close decisions in the Supreme Court were sent to Congress to be settled.

Add in the dismal results of map literacy tests of high school and college students (“Where is Africa?,”  “Identify your city on this map”), and we have just a few markers of a failed information society.

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As Entman noted, “computer and communication technology has enhanced the ability to obtain and transmit information rapidly and accurately,” but “the public’s knowledge of facts or reality have actually deteriorated.”  The result is “more political fantasy and myth transmitted by the very same news media.” We seem to live comfortably without even elementary understandings of the complex world we live in.  The simpler the explanations of complex events, the better.

This condition is sometimes identified as a feature of the Dunning-Kruger effect, a peculiarly distressing form of functional ignorance observed by two Cornell psychologists.  Many of us seem not to be bothered by what we don’t know, overestimating our knowledge.  Dunning and Kruger found that “incompetent” individuals (those falling into the lowest quarter of knowledge on a subject) often failed to recognize their own lack of skill, failed to recognize the extent to which they were misinformed, and did not to accurately gauge the skills of others.  If you have an Aunt Betty who is certain that our former President is a victim of the “deep state” or Hilary Clinton, you have an idea of the willful ignorance this represents.

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                                            Borders of the Unknown

Think of this pattern in an inverted sense: from the perspective of individuals who truly know what they are talking about.  For even the well-informed, the more they know about a subject, the larger the circumference of the borderlands that delineate the unknown.  That’s why those who have mastered a subject area are often the most humble about their expertise: their expanded understanding of a field gives them a sense of what they still don’t know.

The key factor here is our distraction by all forms of media—everything from texting to empty-headed social media rants—that leaves us with little available time to be contributing members of the community.  When the norm is checking our phones over 200 times a day, we have perhaps reached a tipping point where we have no interest in noticing the vast expanses of our own informational black holes.  A familiar fantasy may be enough.

With regard to the basics of membership in a society, the idea of citizenship should mean more.  In the coming election cycle it’s worth remembering that perhaps half of eligible voters will not bother to vote.  And even more will have no interest in learning about the candidates who want to represent them in Congress or their local legislatures.  Worst still, this is all happening at a time when candidates have been captured by a reality-show logic that substitutes melodrama for more sober discussions of how they intend to govern.  Put It altogether, and too many of us don’t notice that we are engrossed with a sideshow of fantasies rather than the main event.

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Deconstructing Presidential Malfeasance


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Members of Congress have skillfully managed the rhetorical tools of personalization and indictment, finally matching what the former President and his media enablers have done for years.

Congressional hearings have always functioned to shed light on darker corners of American life that the nation should see. And that is exactly the function of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. The Committee is made up of 13 members of the House of Representatives, with the consent of the Speaker.  Given the gravity of the attack on the Capitol Building the very day the Congress was set to certify the 2022 election, the goal was to have a bipartisan group of members hold hearings. Readers will remember that Speaker Pelosi rejected a few Republicans opposed to any suggestion that the actions of the insurrectionists were seriously out of line.  Hence, the uber-debater Jim Jordan of Ohio and a few other Republicans were excluded, triggering what now looks like an overreaction by the leader of the minority to boycott the committee. As it stands, two Republican members in the old GOP mold remain. And if Liz Cheney is no longer a rising star within the chaos-voter end of the GOP, her stalwart focus has gained grudging admiration even from her father’s detractors. Cheney’s steady lawyering has given the group much-needed credibility.

As most now agree, the decision of non-participation made by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was a serious blunder, because the committee’s work has been riveting television. The GOP’s self-exclusion had the effect of streamlining the usual rambling hearing process by enabling a coherent narrative. And that wasn’t all. The members doubled down, designing their public meetings for television. Without Trump defenders, and with the tradition-breaking addition of scripted “questions” and edited video inserts, committee leaders made a clear path through the usual jungle of individual meanderings. To the bitter regret of Donald Trump, but maybe to the secret pleasure of some silent members of the GOP, the hearings have become a consistent narrative documenting serious malfeasance and likely sedition. The witness documentation of organizational rot in the West Wing has been extensive. The Committee has heard a compelling case that Trump and some of his aides wanted to undermine the constitutionally mandated process of certifying the election of Joe Biden.  As stunning as it is to write these words, they sought an insurrection to justify a coup.

A New Kind of Congressional Hearing

Could hearings with members reading their remarks from a teleprompter come across as more than a staged show trial of the MAGA crowd?  Most, including a lot of seasoned political columnists thought this strategic move, with its tv-producer managed video inserts, would backfire.  And some, including this writer, thought it was a violation of the spirit of congressional hearings. Witnesses have always been pre-interviewed, but not to this extent. Even so, the hearings—part documentary and partly a horror story of presidential collusion—have turned into a television hit. In some ways it is a sleeker reboot of the famous Watergate hearings in the 70s.  It’s designed in short scenes that can be easily understood.

Are these still “hearings?” Yes and no. The idea of a select group of members of Congress drilling down on a problem is an old one. But at least traditionally, there was room for dissenters and conflicting narratives. Most of that natural ambiguity has gone away. And perhaps scripting and coordinating member’s comments is a step too far.

But I don’t blame the congressional traditionalists for taking serendipity out of the process in favor of building a case against the administration. At best, members of the Committee have skillfully managed the rhetorical tools of personalization and indictment, finally matching what the former President and his media enablers did for years. The full effect of the Committee’s work is yet to be known. But this fresh look undertaken by the institutionalists is indeed having a moment. We are lucky to have them to dramatize the insurrection for the otherwise distracted public.