Disinformation and the Future of Democracy

Sunday, May 9, 2021

What Is It

The 2020 election and startling events that followed show that the US is as polarized as ever. Not only is there fundamental disagreement over values and goals, but people can’t seem to agree on the most basic, easily verifiable facts, like who actually won. With so many seemingly living in an alternative reality, how do we continue the business of democracy together? Should we adopt paternalistic policies towards fellow citizens who are so profoundly divorced from truth? And does our current plight suggest that the project of liberal democracy is failing? John and Ray stay informed about their guest, attorney and political analyst Dean Johnson, co-host of KALW's Your Legal Rights.

Comments (6)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, March 6, 2021 -- 12:31 PM

Truth decay. Clever.

Truth decay. Clever. Alternative reality? Is that anything like separate reality? Seems to me we are fundamentally retreating from democratic government and the principles underpinning that notion.
The endless acrimony has eroded the republic beyond recognition. To my estimation, the most disturbing aspect of all this is the disregard our legislators have for the consequences of their actions.
They appear not to care, so long as they can prevail. We the people do not know what to make of it.
If there is no improvement, sadly, our democracy is finished. Rome, it is said, was not built in a day.
It did not fall in a day either. The parallels are telling.

Daniel's picture


Friday, March 26, 2021 -- 4:30 PM

So where does that leave the

So where does that leave the crossing of the Rubicon? Ceasar himself didn't want it. His generals did. He didn't lead his troops across; he was pushed. Might we be observing something similar in the behavior of our recent national chief executives? Is corporate power pushing our elected representatives to overrun democratic norms?

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, April 3, 2021 -- 8:48 AM

Good questions all. I think

Good questions all. I think me unqualified to answer them. But there is something else which has been nagging at my consciousness for maybe twenty five years. I have noticed an erosion of sorts: the steady replacement of matters of substance with matters of form. I contend this is largely to blame for the increasing divisions we witness. Form is mostly about compliance with insructions, edicts, proclamations and the like. It tends to diminish substantial importance, in favor of conformity. I suspect others have seen this. We cannot all have blinders on, can we? Yes, I am a remnant of counter-cultural upheaval. I also remember more free-thinking times, when some of us had the audacity to look for what really mattered.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, April 3, 2021 -- 2:23 PM

Move my last comments

Move my last comments anywhere you wish. Tell me what you find.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, April 6, 2021 -- 6:13 AM

Have had some recent email

Have had some recent email exchanges with my brother in another country. He is the only surviving blood relative whom I have contact with. We talk about how we grew up, how those,years formed our world views about things; and how different the world is now. We are mostly agreed on notions of democracy: it is just about of bullets. After shooting itself, repeatedly, in the feet. Conflicting ideologies, all espousing the heart and soul of we the people, stumble and fumble;bicker and banter, a lot like religious fanatics, pontificating the 'one true path'. Older brother and I are pretty comfortable in our own skins, so we don't,spend too much time agonizing over others who may not be as well-situated. Seems to me (and, I think to him) that the origins of democracy have been misplaced. This has been an emergent phenomenon. PACs and SPIGs (special interest groups) are partly at fault here, but their influences come not from the people-at-large. I'm pretty sure that, had those people been more attentive; more vigilant; the PACs and SPIGs would have not gained their respective followings.(please note that vigilant is not the same as vigilante---they just look alike.)

It is, of course, more complex that what has been suggested above. I can't write a book here and you would not want to read one. Key phrases are representative democracy and participatory democracy. One must have both---not just one in lieu of the other. The PT blog discusses most of the other errors that have been committed and repeated,over a comparatively short time. I think their repetitive format is intended to track those commissions (and omissions).: we are not, it appears, learning from our mistakes. Dan Dennett must be tearing his hair out. Or else, like me, it is male pattern baldness.

Daniel's picture


Tuesday, April 6, 2021 -- 3:43 PM

Certainly representative

Certainly representative democracy is also participatory, insofar as the representatives are voted in. It seems to me you're getting at the more basic distinction between representative and direct democracy, the kind the Athenians had during the fifth century b.c.e. My current interest in your remarks however concern the comment listed as posted at 8:48 a.m. on April 3rd, which ends with a reference to 'audacity to look for what matters'. For along with it must be coupled the audacity to express one's genuine care for what matters once you find what you're looking for. For that can sometimes bring about retaliation, as did Thersites's objection to the proposed campaign of Agamemnon early in the Iliad (II.211-242, arguably the first contientous objector and anti-war activist in the Western literary tradition), which was met by a severe beating by Odysseus (II.265-269); or a national television network cancelling the "Donahue" talk show for merely inviting a single anti-war voice among the many pro-war points of view during the lead-up to the March 2003 invasion. Indeed, even though taking off one's "blinders" installed by the state, education system, consumer-conditioning by television advertisements, or any other of the myriad ways in which the popular mind is directed away from examining the behaviors of the most powerful elements of society and its effects, can have its costs, some will do so; and in so doing, share the credit for a better informed world, in commendation for individual honesty and intellectual responsibility.

It is however the main part of your comment which to my mind carries the heaviest burden of philosophical analysis: The ancient distinction between form and substance which you apply in explanation of apparent social and political divisiveness, and goes back at least to Aristotle. For Aristotle substance (ousia) is primarily the bearer of diverse predicates which can not itself be a predicate of anything else; to wit: "this man" (e.g. Socrates); "that horse" (e.g. Bucephallus). (As a technical point, the form or "species" is itself described as a kind of "secondary" substance, since it can be seen as a particular under a larger class or "genus", but I think this can here be put aside.) The form however can also denote serviceability (cf. Metaphysics; books V-VI). An ax's form, for example, is defined primarily by its function (ergon), as one which chops wood. A cardboard ax has an ax's shape (morphe), but not its form.

With this in mind, I understand your reference to "matters of substance" and "matters of form" to be both informative and equivocal: Informative insofar as "matters" = problems and their solutions; equivocal insofar as "substance and form" can be seen as different kinds of matters: "Matters of substance" denotes the observation and analysis of the problems themselves; whereas "matters of form" denotes the pre-set paths taken in available solutions. Hence one could suggest the distinction be paraphrased as "awareness of the (substantial) problems" (related to perception and diagnosis), and "tactical form of their solutions" (related to expectation and prognosis); or again, the problem-stimulus, on the one hand, and the solution-form, on the other.

Your reference to "erosion" therefore I understand to be to the erosion of knowledge of problems by automatism of traditional solutions; of awareness by reaction, of stimulus by response; of being by doing; of thought by action. Here I heartily agree. As free, all humans are responsible for the effects of their actions. But these effects may lack sufficient prior thought to qualify as deliberate. I recall a recent chief executive in the U.S. government to have been an unintended nominee for that position, and yet those in his political party remain responsible for it. Forced to choose without thought, the individual is forced by the responsibility-claim (made by the the unconditioned understanding of her or his own freedom) into the narrow confines of customary group-behaviors and old, worn-out solutions to problems whose complexity far undershoots that of our own.

The best solution to the problem of erosion of problem-awareness by solution-reaction is therefore to retreat to the problems themselves-- to thought (attempt to understand on one's own account); and to being (accommodating one's understanding to the source of its contents).

In this relation and in deference to the forum, there might emerge from such considerations a justifiable advocacy for the Philosophy Department's return to some form of the position it obtained in earlier periods, whereby one might hear G.T.F.'s themselves beckoning to the heights of their advisors: "thallassa!", "to the sea!".