Questions of Civic Proportions Newsletter

January 26, 2020

My Fellow Citizens,

By now, you’ve heard discussion of the latest book about the Trump presidency. You’ve undoubtedly heard one of its key phrases, “dangerously uninformed.” But is any of this news?

We have long documented just how comfortably uninformed the American public is. Last year’s Constitution Day Survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found more than one-fifth of U.S. adults can’t name a single branch of government.

So what’s the danger in being uninformed? Perhaps we haven’t made a compelling case.

The easy answer is some form of French philosopher Joseph de Maistre’s 1860 quote, “every nation gets the government it deserves.” Speaking to an Italian audience in May 2017, former President Barack Obama offered this riff on that standard, “if you don’t vote and you don’t pay attention, you’ll get policies that don’t reflect your interest.” 

An uninformed people elect uninformed leaders. Shaming people for their inattention or lack of information doesn’t do much to help them see the dangerous consequences. 

The danger is a disconnect, but maybe not the one you imagine. The threat begins with our coming unmoored from fact but becomes fatal by disconnecting us from the shared project of democracy. 

In his 2015 book,The Death of Expertise, Tom Nichols writes:  

“Anti-intellectualism is itself a means of short-circuiting democracy, because a stable democracy in any culture relies on the public actually understanding the implications of its own choices.” 

When we are dangerously uninformed, we see choices without considering the consequences. In Alexis de Tocqueville’s study of American democracy, he warned us that our endeavors might work this way: 

“Thus not only does democracy make each man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants from him and separates him from his contemporaries; it constantly leads him back towards himself alone and threatens finally to confine him wholly in the solitude of his own heart.” (Democracy in America, Volume 2)

When we are dangerously uninformed, we trivialize the past and dismiss the future. We’ve lost what Einstein called a sense of “universal causation.” Reflecting on how a scientist understands the world, he wrote, “The future to him, is every whit as necessary and determined as the past.” 

When we spend our time trading stories of the dangerously uninformed, we also play a part in letting the past and the future spin further and further out of orbit. The work of sustaining a “very stable” democracy requires working together to connect the causes, choices, and consequences of the day’s news. 

Those connections will keep us connected to one another too. It might sometimes feel dangerous, and it’s always difficult, but that’s the work we do in the name of democratic citizenship. 

With no fear, we’re in this together,

Shellee

Questions of Civic Proportions

“New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become.”

 

—from Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

Can a different approach to our past help us better see what justice requires today?

When it comes to what to expect from the movie “Just Mercy,” NPR’s headline makes the case: “‘Just Mercy’ Attorney Asks U.S. to Reckon with its Racist Past and Present.” The title refers to a recent movie and the memoir that attorney Bryan Stevenson published in 2014. He has committed his career to helping us all see how we’re failing at justice today.

He founded the Equal Justice Initiative in 1989 to “provide legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons.” Last April, EJI opened The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration on a site in Montgomery, Alabama where enslaved people were once warehoused. He says that project helped him: 

“…appreciate the absolute terror of living in a place where the most insignificant encounter might turn into an incident where you or your loved one could be killed. And that’s the trauma. That’s the weight that this history created that I don’t think many people appreciate.”

In another interview about the film, Stevenson observes that there is nothing fair or reliable about the American justice system today. He also repeats the idea that has motivated his work for decades, “slavery doesn’t end, it just evolves.” While reflecting on Stevenson’s work, consider this post from NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice that offers a look at one law professor’s prescription for the remedies to our criminal justice crisis.

 

 

What is dangerous about growing inequality?

The International Monetary Fund made headlines at The World Economic Forum in Davos this week. They had a dire warning about inequality. It showed up in the news heavy with comparisons to the past, “The global economy is likely to rebound in 2020, but IMF warns of eerie parallels to the 1920s.

Kristaline Georgieva, Managing Director of the IMF, addressed the annual meeting with a question: what have we learned from history that is informative for what we must do today? Her answer included:

 

“We learned that excessive inequality hinders growth. It hollows out a country’s foundation. It erodes trust in society, it erodes trust in institutions, and it can fuel populism, and it can fuel political upheaval.”

 

Read Georgieva’s full remarks to see the IMF’s recommendations for safer, more stable, and smarter policies. Picking up the cause, 121 of the world’s most wealthy signed a letter released this week referring to their group as Millionaires Against Pitchforks. The letter states:

“There are two kinds of wealthy people in the world: those who prefer taxes and those who prefer pitchforks. We, the undersigned, prefer taxes. And we believe that, upon reflection, you will as well.”

What should we expect the work of impartial justice to look like?

Last week, we posted our recommended reading (and listening) list for thinking about the second oath U.S. Senators take before beginning an impeachment trial. They have now sworn an oath to the U.S. Constitution and to “do impartial justice.” You’ve no doubt heard a lot of reporting this week on whether or not our elected representatives are taking this responsibility seriously. In an op-ed for The Bulwark, Jeff Tulis and William Kristol wrote:

“Human beings are still fallible, opinionated, even prejudiced. Indeed our Founders expected no less. But there is a big difference between lamentably falling short of the highest standard and actively scorning it.”

 

While thinking about the demands of impartial justice, you might also check out this interview of Neal Katyal from Aspen Ideas to Go. Katyal wrote the recent book Impeach: The Case Against Donald Trump. In conversation with Dahlia Lithwick, Senior Editor at Slate and Supreme Court watcher, Katyal reminds us that the Founders intended impeachment to be a “strong check.” They had designed a strong presidency and knew they needed a mechanism capable of challenging it when necessary.

 

Good Work: Informable Delivers News Literacy Practice for Everyone

The News Literacy Project (NLP) has a new app in their arsenal of resources for teaching “how to navigate the challenging and complex information landscape.” We often celebrate how easy it is to find all the news, and the stories behind the news in the digital age. That access to information has come with costs. 

“Informable,” the new app, is built around four “brain training” styles that support being news-literate. Users earn points for speed and accuracy by working through the three levels of each mode:

(1) Checkable or not?
(2) Evidence or not?
(3) Ad or not?
(4) News or Opinion?

In this video, students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia share how NLP’s virtual classroom, Checkology, has helped them learn to “look twice” at the information they see online. Their teacher believes her students are developing “all the skills you need to be a critical thinker, a participant in our democracy, and a watchdog for our government.” 

Informable marks an effort by NLP to bring real-world learning to an informed citizenry beyond the classroom. Alan Miller, founder and CEO of NLP, explains that the app creates:  

 

“…an opportunity to develop new habits of the mind that will improve their ability to separate fact from fiction. Studies have shown that as we get older, we may be more likely to share misinformation. This app can help all of us become more discerning about the information we encounter.”
 
Their mission statement is one we can all get behind too: “Give facts a fighting chance.”