- Glenn Sonnenberg
Musings from the Bunker 5/17/20
"Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you."
--Ralph Waldo Emerson
WHY ARE WE WILLING TO BE DECEIVED?
I’ve been thinking about the Russian interference in the 2016 election. That was merely the beginning, as there is more to come with Chinese, Russian and other foreign interests meddling with the news, news feeds, and purported interest groups. It seems pretty clear to most people that we need to do something to stop this sort of meddling. Yet Republicans are reluctant to act, presumably since any action necessarily is conflated with validation of the Mueller investigation (which, to be clear did not exonerate the President and his campaign team). The Senate seems consciously determined to enter the election season without protections against these bad actors for purely political reasons.
We are quick to place blame on the Russians (whose actions have been conclusively proven, while the unsubstantiated “they did it too” claim of Ukrainian interference has not). But perhaps the blame rests with us. We have become lackadaisical in our critical analysis and are so desirous of reading things—regardless of how preposterous, that support the reader’s world view. The Russians are successful because we’re so bad not only at preventing the posting of their manipulations, but because so many of our fellow citizens are so easily manipulated. The Russian strategy only works if people are susceptible to having their fears exploited. In this age of political polarization, egged on by politicians, Super-PACs and the media, and an age of easily accepted conspiracy theories, our population is ripe for exploitation.
SHOULDN’T WE BE EDUCATING AND PREPARING OUR POPULACE FOR THE WORLD?
There is a battle in our school boards and in the media about the content of curriculums in primary and secondary education. I’m going to ignore the fight against science—that’s a whole different question.
The battle lies in the teaching of the humanities. The very name speaks to the fact that these subjects are what make us human—and what elevates the human experience from beyond the mere quotidien to something greater. These subjects, like music, art, and literature, as well as the social sciences, are underfunded and often completely eliminated at the altar of “STEM” and teaching toward college admissions tests. There is much literature on this, but here’s a great short introduction from Education Weekly (entitled, “For the Sake of Humanity, Teach the Humanities”): https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2016/11/16/for-the-sake-of-humanity-teach-the.html
There is another, related, critical battle to be joined and that’s the need to teach our youth—the citizens and leaders for the future—to be better citizens. These lessons are critical—good behaviors (like wearing a mask to protect the vulnerable around you), society’s responsibility for all its citizens, understanding our representative democracy, and appreciating how laws and regulations are promulgated. And, most importantly, we need to teach critical thinking—the ability to recognize when one is being bamboozled—discerning and weighing information receives based upon the qualitative difference between sources, understanding that the reporting of facts is different from expression of opinion, and the just plain unfounded assertion. We can best battle Russian bots (or bloviators) when we understand and can respond to manipulation when we see it.
While we’re at it, we are falling behind in the teaching of basic personal economics, and valuable skills of dexterity, and the arts that prepare one for careers and for life. While I am not exactly “Mr. Fixit,” I learned some of this in my middle school, which offered wood shop, metal shop, and drafting (our school even had a fully functioning auto shop)—which we all had to take. And we learned a thing or two about how to balance a checkbook and what credit was all about. Today, we send kids out into the world with scarcely any notion of how to organize themselves financially, or practice basic life skills.
What we need most is basic civics taught in our secondary schools. Perhaps then we will have better defenses to the seemingly limitless manipulations coming from inside and out—from election meddling to fantastical conspiratorial theorizing to truly dangerous anti-science like the anti-vaccination movement.
ANIMATION WITH A MESSAGE
There is a marvelous movie—Wall-E—that begins with an image of the devolution of humankind over generations of intellectual and physical laziness. It begins with mankind on a spaceship together (after having despoiled the Earth). There is a wall with the photos of the captains throughout the years, more obese than the one preceding him. The idea was that they people were becoming lazy and less active, focused on computer screens and passive entertainment. I feel in some respects like we are in danger, not only of a declining physical condition, but of the dumbing down of our population.
While on the subject of great animated movies, in my opinion the best (in addition to Wall-E) include:
• The Incredibles (dare to excel). The Incredibles II is nearly as good.
• Up (brilliant, poignant and uplifting). A story of loss, followed by purpose and friendship. For similar sentiment, try the show After Life, starring and written by Ricky Gervais.
• Iron Giant, Brad Bird’s first and, in my opinion, best. Set in 50s America, with McCarthy era politicians and a beatnik hero. Maybe one of the best movies of all time—animated or real life. I guarantee you’ll laugh, think, be moved, and maybe even shed a tear.