Most of us are at least generally aware that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects American citizens against government censorship or repression of what we say or publish. The concept of free speech as an absolute right has been challenged or reinforced innumerable times at every local and federal jurisdiction level in our land. The earliest conditional exception to this established law was introduced by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, when he invoked the principal that only when a public utterance constituted a “clear and present danger” to our democracy did it not have lawful protection.
It’s surely true that Justice Holmes could not have contemplated the extent of our early 21st century disarray, provoked in huge measure by an unnumbered swarm of misinformation sources. What retired professor Shoshana Zuboff of Harvard terms our now- installed and virtually unregulated condition of Surveillance Capitalism is shot through with lies and specious arguments designed to distract us from truth and serve as support for many growing, harmful, commercial, or political agendas.
Whatever understanding we developed as young Americans that a democracy’s foundation rests largely on the principle of shared truths is being severely compromised by these forces.
For instance, nearly half of our electorate has bought into what has been characterized as the “Big Lie,” referring to the utterly false thesis that our 2020 national election was stolen from the then incumbent president. The peddlers of this “Big Lie” have borrowed a popular axiom of dictators, one that stipulates a lie will be accepted as fact if repeated often and broadly enough. Advocates of this undermining technique have an abundance of irresponsible and unaccountable media platforms, of which they make fullest use to keep abhorrent distortions in front of us. This contemptuous tactic is an insult to all who notice it, but notice it and counterattack it we must, because it is, in fact, a very scary clear and enormous present danger to our democracy. But who or what should lead such an urgently needed recovery?
Before exploring answers to that question, all of us need to consider the nature of the threat, its implications, and the motivations of its root sources.
First of all, the threat is almost overwhelmingly pervasive. It surrounds us through tactical use of cell phones, websites, social media, television, publications, and unsolicited mail. Exposure is virtually unavoidable. A principal implication is that lies can seem plausible and implementable. A major political motive is to divide our country into hostile camps and thereby weaken the structure of democracy, which is a condition aided and abetted by our Russian and Chinese competitors, who despise a level playing field in international commerce.
Other motives are to commercialize our life patterns which are observed, packaged and sold as commodities to marketing agencies, to stimulate us to acquire things we probably don’t need or even don’t really want. Perhaps more importantly, most of what we do is observed and made available to whoever might be curious and motivated by goodness knows what. In other words, privacy is a vanishing feature of American life. Leadership to confront such a broadly and deeply planted menace will have to arise on many local, community, state, and national platforms.
A highly critical concern has to be with how our young people, our future leadership cohort, develop their discernment and accommodation skills. Their insights into the fundamental nature of a functional democracy’s dependence on shared truths, and their appreciation for our culture’s need for citizens to develop personal value structures that can serve both individual and community issues faithfully, are by far best first developed and refined within families, under the thoughtful involved guidance of understanding parents.
Children and teenagers who are blessed to grow within a family structure that truly communicates and demonstrates sincere mutual interests in how they relate to each other and their communities are enormously advantaged over contemporaries not so fortunate, and they tend to rise as natural leaders. Their abilities to hold political lies in perspective and understand the extents to which social media deviate from reality are major structural components of their increasingly adult awareness. Their parents could make no greater contribution to American society than to provide the kind of at-home leadership that brings forward such well-equipped young people.
It is unrealistic to anticipate the Congress enacting helpful regulatory measures in the information technology universe in anything like the near-term future. There are a few positive-sounding things starting to be discussed and even started by the current administration, but things like meaningful new anti-trust and monopoly control laws are many moons away from us. Big money interests and assorted rogue ideology worship will continue to delay even popular democratic innovations. Pressure from the population may force something useful eventually, but much damage to our ways of life is being done as we speak.
A national government that can’t bring itself to even begin marshalling its several branches coherently to address huge issues like climate change, gun control, existential public health threats, and embedded economic and racial inequalities, can’t be expected to suddenly change its spots, especially in an area where communications/information technology has raced far ahead of any related body of law.
The foregoing being the case, concerned citizens still have the means to change things for the better, even if it takes a while. They can engage with the multitude of familiar agencies at hand in every community. Almost all of us already belong to things like civic clubs, business associations, houses of worship, school boards, professional societies, etc. and these can serve very well to swell the voices of the people to points that cannot be ignored by politicians and their parties. They can frame their concerns in the context of elected official accountability, than which there is probably no more sensitive lever. Helpful changes can start to happen when it becomes vividly apparent that, after all, people really do count in this country, and elected political office holders are supposed to serve at the pleasure of the governed.
Throughout our history Americans have come together to defend our freedoms whenever seriously threatened. As a people we have been able to recognize external threats for what they are and come together in vigorous common cause. What we have on our hands now is something new and sinister; a nasty combination of external cyberattacks along with an internally generated misinformation war that has us divided to the point of being less able to protect our cherished freedoms.
Our representative democracy seems to be at a tangential point where, especially at policy levels, there is a prevailing attitude that holds people who disagree as enemies who must be thwarted. This condition blocks reaching the sort of common sense compromises directed toward the public good that have characterized our history. It is most surely unrealistic to hope that changing that atmosphere can be achieved by governmental top-down initiatives alone.
More promising are the possibilities envisioned and pursued locally. We have many sorts of community engagement channels, both those mentioned above and many others, to give us persuasive voices for insisting on positive change. Framing arguments in the context of how national issues are harming local well-being, and being specific about how promising hands-on initiatives can make positive local differences, seem to be a powerful way to influence better governance at all levels. Such arguments can open up new channels for accountability questions that, over time, politicians will find it increasingly hard to ignore.
I think the ball is in our court, not theirs. E PLURIBUS UNUM
Charles M. Ericson lives in Farmington. This commentary was written in collaboration with Sedona Ericson of Spokane, WA.