Note: This post is a bit more interactive than usual. At the end there are no answers or insights, just an exercise that may help you ponder this question more deeply, from a spiritual perspective. Have at it.
Last week I read an Atlantic article that scared me half to death. It has me wondering how to live in an age when the fundamentals of our public square (like trust and the quest for truth) are eroding fast.
“The 2020 Disinformation War” describes an array of methods that Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, among others (including Democrats), may use to spread lies and distortions throughout the public square in 2020. These methods work, in part, because of what scholars call censorship through noise: a nonstop blizzard of disinformation so relentless it numbs people to distinctions of truth vs. falsehood.
(Just in case you, like me, have assumed you’re immune to all this, so did the article’s author—McKay Coppins, an Atlantic staff writer—when he set up a new Facebook account and connected it to pro-Trump groups as part of his research. “I was surprised by the effect it had on me,” he writes. “I’d assumed that my skepticism and media literacy would inoculate me against such distortions. But…with each swipe, the notion of observable reality drifted further out of reach.”)
Many authors strike a note of hope at the end of downer articles, but not Coppins. He quotes the political theorist Hannah Arendt, who cites successful 20th-century dictators and their use of propaganda to manipulate their people. Coppins concludes that, if the disinformation of 2020 prevails, “the election’s legacy will be clear—not a choice between parties or candidates or policy platforms, but a referendum on reality itself.”
(There are other ways to think about this. Here, for instance, is a thoughtful conservative response from Mark Hemingway, book editor at The Federalist. Even he, though highly critical of “the media,” refers to its value in countering “the terrifying prospect of not being able to trust anything you read.”)
This will sound alarmist, but I also believe it’s true: if Americans lose their capacity (even their desire) to distinguish fact from fiction, truth from lies, we’re done. At the very least, we become something vastly different from—worse than—the country our founders envisioned.
If that’s where we end up, how do we live?
For starters, I’m thrown back on what I wrote last time about my new “mantra,” there is so much more than this: “No matter how dark American life has become, no matter how hostile, no matter how violent or corrosive, there are forces that make it all look very puny indeed. Those forces—God if you’re a certain kind of theist, emptiness if you’re a certain kind of Buddhist, etc.—are good. Very good.”
It’s tempting to use that mantra to float above the fray, waiting for God to fix everything or whatnot. For me at least, that won’t do. So…?
My next stop was the Psalms, the poetry from the Hebrew scriptures, specifically Psalm 73 (as numbered in Protestant Bibles). It starts by describing a group the psalmist calls “the arrogant” or “the wicked.” Then we get the psalmist’s frustration with these people and how they thrive, versus those who “in vain have kept their hearts clean.” A visit to the temple corrects the psalmist’s thinking by revealing the fate of these people, and how God will restore justice.
I did some reflecting on this, and a few questions arose. I don’t have answers yet, and maybe you’d like to ponder them too. Read the psalm and then ask yourself:
- Who exactly are “the arrogant” the psalmist describes? What might we name them if we encountered them today?
- Who is the “I”—the psalmist—in this psalm? What is the state of the psalmist’s heart, their status in society, their relationship with God?
- What is God being counted on to do in the name of justice?
- How, if at all, do your answers shed insight on our current situation in 2020?
I would love to hear your thoughts, and that goes double if you do the reflection. Feel free to comment here or on Facebook.