Internet Epistemology

Where do we find reliable information?  I’m asking this question on an internet-based medium, which itself is ironic.  While spending time with some younger people, it’s become clear that the web is their source of truth.  You find purveyors of information that you trust, and you accept their YouTube channels as representing correct data.  This can be a disorienting experience for an old doubter like me.  One of the reasons for studying for a Ph.D., apart from the vain hope of finding a career in higher education, is to hone critical thinking skills.  When I went through the process, that involved reading lots and lots of print material, assessing it, and weighing it against alternative views, also in print format.  You learn who really makes sense and you judge which publishers have good information more frequently.  As you navigate, you do so critically, questioning where they get their information.

Now, I’m not one of those people who think the younger generation is wrong (in fact, there are YouTube educational videos about just that).  The situation does, however, leave me wondering about how to fact-check when you don’t know the publisher.  It may be an older person’s problem, but it’s essentially the same dilemma behind self-publishing—the reason you trust a self-published book depends on the author alone.  Is s/he persuasive?  Did s/he document the sources of her/his information?  Are those sources good ones?  The young people I know seem quite adept at filtering out obviously biased information.  Many YouTube personalities footnote their presentations with links to sources (many of them online), and after an hour of watching I’m left questioning what’s really real at all.

You see, many of these internet personalities have sponsors.  Sponsors bring money, and money biases anyone’s angle toward the truth.  In fact, many of these YouTube sources call out the lobbying groups that influence public opinion for political ends.  Only someone completely naive—no matter their generation—would not acknowledge that government runs on money provided by corporations with interests to be protected.  There have been reliable sources, even from the days of print, that prove beyond any reasonable doubt just how corrupt governments tend to be.  But who has time to fact-check the government when the rest of the information we receive is suspect?  Those of us with training in advanced critical thinking aren’t immune from biased information.  It’s just that there’s so much data on the web that my head’s spinning.  I think I need to go read a book.

Always Have with You

The place wasn’t meant for a family of six. Properly speaking, it was a one-bedroom house, or hovel. The attic, from which we could see the sky through the roof, was divided into two rooms, with no doors. You had to pull down the stairs in order to climb up there and that trapdoor had to be kept closed in the daytime. The house was heated by a single, oversized gas stove that sat in the middle of the living room—no ducts, vents, or radiators here. The bathroom had only a sink and a toilet. No tub. No shower. The only window that opened was the kitchen window, and before we moved in my mother insisted that my step-father pull out the nails that held the vinyl blinds permanently closed over the windows that would never open. The only reason we weren’t called “white trash” is that we lived above the Mason-Dixon line.

Reading Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America was, therefore, a little bit uncomfortable. First of all, bullies who care only for the wealthy are nothing new in American politics. Second of all, it reminded me of how, when I was found without a job, no college or university wanted to hire a guy with no connections, despite the Ph.D. That’s business as usual in these United States. What I have realized is that in this nation of self-made individuals, those allowed to make it often start from a class higher than my own. I was a first generation college student, and once my step-father gave in to the pressure to put a proper bathtub in his house, I’d come home to find carp swimming in it. White trash and ivory towers clash, don’t you know.

The saddest part of this book is that nothing has changed. Four centuries on and we still treat the poor with contempt. We love rags to riches stories because they’re so rare. The vast majority of the poor have a very hard existence. Even though, according to government statistics, we were considered a poverty-level family, we had it better than many. True, there were too many cars in the driveway, all of them used—very used, and the house was bulldozed as unfit for habitation immediately after we moved out, but many have it far worse. This book opens some old wounds, but it should be required reading for all politicians. Not that it would make much of a difference, though. The suffering of the poor is just far too easy to ignore as long as there is money to be made off of anyone less fortunate than yourself. That’s the American way. It always has been.

In Control

Those who know me know that I treat my workdays like clockwork. I leave the apartment every day, catch the same bus, and leave work at the end of the day, all according to schedule. Traffic is a variable, of course. Yesterday as I came out of the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 7:15, blunted with my reading on the bus, I noted we were a bit late for my liking. I got to work before 7:30, though, and was interrupted by a message from my brother, asking if I had made it out of the Port Authority okay. I was a bit confused—weather delays do happen, but what could have made today any different than any other Monday? It was then I learned about the bombing. It happened five minutes after I left.

Now, I’m not trying to over-dramatize this. I was above ground and the bomber was below. I didn’t even hear it go off, although there were a lot of sirens on my way to work. The only serious injury was to the bomber himself. What really got to me, when the idea had time to settle in, was how close I’d been. So were thousands of others at the time. Over the summer I went to Penn Station just after what had been assumed to be a terrorist attack. Jackets and personal effects lay scattered on the floor. People had dropped things and ran. In that case it had been an innocent tazing of an unruly passenger that had set off the panic. I’m not a fan of fear on the commute. I don’t think, however, that we should give in to the rhetoric that our government will surely use to describe all this.

Millions of people live and work in New York City. Such things as these disrupt the flow of our daily lives, but we can’t let the agenda of fear control this narrative. I felt a tinge of it when I headed back to the Port Authority at the end of the day. Police barricades were still up on 8th Avenue. Reporters with cameras were at the scene. A potential killer had been here just hours before. This is New York. Without the overlay of fear, this was simply business as normal. Any city of millions will harbor potential killers. If terror controls the narrative, it has won. If politicians use this fear to win elections, the terrorists win them too. I’m doing what we must do to defeat the fear. I’m just getting back on the bus.

United States of Ego

We all know the type. The guy who brags that he can do something complex without all the study and “hard work” (scare quotes theirs) necessary beforehand. When he starts strutting his stuff, and realizes that it is much harder than he thought, he has to find a way of backing down without losing face. We all know somebody like that. Now we all know somebody like that by dint of his being in the White House. Politics, like most complex things, isn’t as easy as it looks. When you’re president of the United States, backing down quietly’s not an easy thing to do. Why not start a nuclear war instead? Better dead than read, as the saying goes.

Thing is, braggarts may convince others that they don’t know what they’re talking about, but they’ll never convince themselves. The truly sad thing is we’ve never lived in a country where it was possible to buy your way to the White House before, based purely on ego. Don’t get me wrong—I know that every president has to be an egoist to some degree. What the previous 44 have had, however, is considerable knowledge of politics. Even the dumbest of them read. They knew this wouldn’t be some simple task that you could simply wing, like a business deal. You have to do homework. A lot of it. And it’s not easy. Even the relatively simple life of a professor of religious studies requires years of training. Hours and hours and hours of reading and thinking. Believe it or not, it’s hard work.

Now we have a chief executive tweeting that it’s hard to be president. Everyone, it seems, except 45, knew that. That’s why most people would never bother to run for the office. Our civilization utterly depends on experts. That surgeon that works on your heart, you swear, had better be an expert. Those guys who build the missiles we lob onto whomever we feel like, had better be experts. And even if your steak comes out of the restaurant kitchen poorly prepared, you send it back for expert treatment. And yet, we’ve elected the least qualified candidate who’s ever run for the office in over two centuries of history. His expertise: pleasing himself. Greed is a poor substitute for leadership. Even now that it’s crystal clear we live in a headless state, his supporters cheer him on. Let’s hear it for the poor uber-wealthy. Those guys need all the help they can get.

Stand Up

dscn4678

At first glance, we had little in common. In fact, of all the people in the room the only one I knew was my wife. We were gathered together to find ways to defend ourselves against our government. Those who normalize Trump and claim that his nearly 3 million vote loss qualifies as a mandate are blind. Those of us who have been complacent, believing that our government—even with obviously inferior candidates such as the Bush family offerings—was in the process of self-balancing have found the bar of the scales of justice broken. Founded as a democracy, we’ve “elected” our first dictator, who, if unchallenged, has already indicated that our civil and human rights are just chattels to be bargained away around the boardroom table. Once those of us who survive the next four years stagger out, I wonder if it won’t be time to establish a test to be president. A basic competency test.

For my job, I’m evaluated on basic competencies. An editor, for example, has to understand both the language in which the job is undertaken and possess a fair amount of skill in a variety of administrative tasks to perform adequately. Why doesn’t the most powerful job in the nation require a set of basic competencies? Things such as a basic vocabulary test and being able to point to foreign nations on a map? It may sound elitist, but I grew up in a working class family and although I’ve never run for political office, even I knew the value of legitimate education. Watching a politician surrounding himself by fact-deniers in a cabinet of untruth should demonstrate to even those who voted for him that we’ve put an incompetent politician in power. We’ve batted our eyes at a man we don’t know and have asked him to dance.

I’ve made it more than half a century without needing to be political. We now all have to become political. It’s distressing to see others my age saying “what can you do?” with a shrug of the shoulders. We can organize. We can resist. We can insist that the values that 3 million more voters showed in an historic win of the popular vote be represented by our government. This is not status quo ante. This is not just another political snafu. We all face a challenge to basic democracy and a level of untruth unprecedented even by politicians in the past two centuries. Don’t sit still. Get involved. Stand up for human rights, because your government elect has made it clear that it won’t.

Circus of the Absurd

As long as I’m thinking about ethics, my thoughts turn to the fair. Every August our county 4-H Fair becomes an event in our lives. Since my family has been involved with 4-H for many years, we always try to spend as much time there as we can afford. Jobs and daily life tend to get in the way, of course. While there we get to see the animals that are missing from our lives, and reconnect with art and culture. Robotics are now part of our local fair, and this is the first year that I’ve ever seen pigs there. And there were the political booths. Just around the corner from where the sheriff’s office was giving out free gun locks to prevent kids from shooting someone accidentally was the booth supporting Trump. I’ve never been so strongly tempted in my life to walk up to a total stranger and say, “You are kidding, right?” But no, like the Donald himself, a flashy large sign displayed their ignorance for all to see. We live in the era of the delightfully uninformed.

IMG_2908

I’m no political pundit. I tend not to trust any politicians much. I distrust businessmen even more. The fact is the only thing you need to be a viable candidate for President is money. Over the past several weeks Trump has shown himself to be anything but qualified for political office. Major newspapers run articles that seriously question his sanity. And yet here are good people who don’t have the sense to maybe put up an embarrassed, small sign saying “Sorry folks, we’ll try again in 2020.” We find it hard to admit our mistakes. Especially when the stakes are so terribly high.

I go to the fair to support 4-H and to enjoy an evening out with my family. Although I spend most of every day in a different state working in an isolated cubicle, I can always count on seeing people I know at the fair. I enjoy the arts tent where young folks are making their first steps into lives filled with creativity and imagination. The more technical tents can be intimidating where kids a quarter my age are launching model rockets and those under half my age are building robots. In the herpetology tent I see a snake amid a bed of shredded newspaper. He’s hiding under the photo of a prominent non-politician who has a large booth displaying his name just across the grounds. And I remind myself this is the first year they’ve had a swine tent. I wonder if anything will be the same next year.

Nightmares

I spend a lot of time thinking about monsters. Could there be any more statement of the obvious? The deeper issue, however, is why. Why am I, among countless others, drawn to the monster? This may not be politically correct—I apologize in advance—but that which is unusual naturally draws our gaze. Humans, along with other conscious creatures, are curious. (There’s another trait that reductionism hasn’t adequately explained; we’d be far more secure sticking with what we already know works.) The out-of-the-ordinary will keep our attention although we’re told not to stare. The monster is defined as something that isn’t “normal.” We’re captivated. We stare. Indeed, we can’t look away.

477px-Frankenstein's_monster_(Boris_Karloff)

The media play into this with their coverage of Trump. I realize I risk participating in that rude behavior by even addressing the topic, but as I hear intelligent people everywhere asking why Trump has captured the imagination I have to ask, have you seen the headlines? Newspapers that don’t endorse him run huge headlines when his name is in the news. It’s horrible, but I can’t look away. Historians scratch hoary heads and wonder how Hitler came to power. Populism combined with an undereducated population in a democracy may be an equation that political analysts should try to solve before it’s too late. Meanwhile, my thoughts turn to monsters. Ugly, large, and threatening, they rampage through my dreams and now my waking reality. I watched in horror as the electorate lined up behind Reagan. Bush, I told myself, was an aberration. Until the second time. Then I realized it was the summer of Frankenstein indeed.

From my youngest days I recall the antipathy that my classmates showed toward school. I didn’t mind school that much, or at least the learning part. Gym I could’ve done without. I never did get the socializing thing down. Feeling a bit like Frankenstein’s monster myself, I realized I was a pariah (that was a vocabulary word). When did monsters shift to being worthy of emulation? The monsters of my childhood were to be feared, and curious creatures will always keep an eye on that which causes fear and trembling. The media say we don’t want Trump but they give him all the air time he could wish and more. In headlines in massive, almost misshapen letters. They’ve expended their superlatives on what they tell us we shouldn’t see. They have, perhaps unwittingly, played into the very hand bitten by that which it feeds. I can’t help it. I’m staring.