Want to save democracy? Hold friends to account
The growing feeling that Russian manipulation of social media helped elect Donald Trump is increasing people’s distaste for both. There is even talk of censoring Facebook, a.k.a. requiring social media ads to be “transparent.” But given the drawbacks of censorship and its difficulty online, I suggest a simpler solution.
Pace Ronald Reagan, I don’t mean easier. Especially as the key tool here is a mirror, because the fault lies not in our servers but in ourselves. We must refuse to consume or share junk.
As my colleague Jen Gerson argued in Monday’s Post, the Russians weren’t really targeting social media flaws. Rather, “The greatest weaknesses in Western democracies is us.” She’s right … but we have to mean us, not “them.”
In some sense, voters have always been the greatest weakness in Western democracy. But also its greatest strength. All human institutions are fallible because all humans are fallible. And the great argument for selfgovernment, as one aspect of a determinedly open society even when it hurts or smells, is that it corrects mistakes far better than any other system.
It can be hard to put up with democracy’s failings. Our own prime minister notoriously praised the Chinese dictatorship’s ability to turn on a dime on environmental matters. He was as wrong factually as morally. But it’s always tempting to say, “Well, this crisis is too serious for the time- honoured method of staggering from error to error without ever falling down,” or to claim the electorate has somehow become so weak, corrupted or stupid as to lose what once passed for our capacity for rational thought.
Perhaps we finally have. I am certainly part of the O Tempora O Mores crowd, though paradoxically the very antiquity of this lament is grounds for hope ( it’s from Cicero’s First Oration Against Cataline in 63 BC). I also recall Chesterton’s warning, long before even the wireful telephone blighted our lives, that big cities offered problematic opportunities to associate only with like- minded people. But I do not believe the Internet’s famous “echo chamber” effect, or its infamous incivility toward strangers, were held in check in days of yore entirely by the cost of postage.
Something bad has happened as a combined result of technological and social change. But as we cannot go backward chronologically, we must go forward morally.
The thing is, and again it’s neither news nor welcome, we can’t fix the prob- lem by urging our basket of opponents to smarten up. Even Gerson’s column seemed to me to focus exclusively on people who didn’t agree with her, as though conservative idiots’ sins were obviously the core problem. But as Tom Hanks said in The Burbs, “It’s not them. It’s us.”
Let me illustrate with two recent incidents from my own life- like object. I do so not to claim superior virtue but to underline what I think is necessary.
First, someone sent me a stirring Sir Wilfrid Laurier speech about the need for immigrants to conform to the Canadian way of life. But the scent of rat does not emanate only from the other camp. And this missive brought to mind J. M. Barrie’s quip, “I know not, Sir, whether Bacon wrote the works of Shakespeare, but if he did not it seems to me that he missed the opportunity of his life.” Except I do know. The Internet has some uses, and a quick online search told me the quotation was concocted seven years ago from something Theodore Roosevelt really did say about immigrants to America. So instead of circulating what I wish Laurier had said, I informed the sender that he didn’t.
The other incident involved a critique of global warming alarmism that employed the “Climate Barbie” nickname for our environment minister. Risking the wrath of the like- minded, I replied to the list, saying I mostly agreed, but objected to what I considered a gratuitous and apparently sexist insult.
The wrath duly descended. I was promptly and absurdly accused of being politically correct and not knowing what sexism is. (For the record, I can see calling our prime minister “Climate Ken” because his shallowness i ncludes unseemly delight in his own charms. But I see no sign that our environment minister ’s cluelessness has any such source.)
I do not know whether I gained respect or lost friends over the episode. But if we don’t want social media to be a vast network of meanspirited, unreliable echo chambers we must all call out our own side more often. Including Trump- deplorers worrying less about the rubbish his supporters eagerly poke their snouts into, and more about what t heir fellow virtue- signallers are consuming. If you can’t find anything unsavoury in your trough, your sense of smell is off.
Remember, when we say the problem is us, we must not mean it’s them. Because then it’s really us.
AS TOM HANKS SAID IN THE BURBS, ‘IT’S NOT THEM. IT’S US.’