American Election Extravaganza, Media Literacy, and Political Burnout

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This is the third time I’ve sat down to try to write something about our election episode. After the first two attempts I abandoned the idea of writing anything. I just didn’t have a fresh take on any of it. There’s practically nothing that one can say about the Donald Trump or his administration that has not already been said, and after all this isn’t really supposed to be a political podcast. Obviously, something changed my mind about doing a blog post. That something was this tweet by my good friend President Trump (Big D, as I call him).

 

I actually cut something from the episode related to John Bolton’s book, and this tweet reminded me of it. When I went to do some research on Bolton’s book, I couldn’t help but notice these search results on Goodreads.

Media Literacy

Admittedly, I’m not an expert on the world of political non-fiction, but it honestly surprised me how many results on Goodreads were summaries of John Bolton’s book. I especially love the last one with the misspelled name and the mushroom cloud cover. I’ve searched for many long, boring books on Goodreads before and this is the first time that I’ve seen this many summaries returned in the search results. I find this particularly surprising since I read a lot of books that are frequently assigned as required reading for any number of English and Philosophy classes. I want to talk about why summaries of this book, in particular, are so popular and why that concerns me.

Some background may be necessary for anyone who wasn’t following the media drama surrounding the publication of John Bolton’s book. Once upon a time, Donald J. Trump was impeached by the United States House of Representatives for improperly (illegally, some may say) withholding critical funding from Ukraine until they agreed to open an investigation on Joe Biden’s son. Hunter Biden was involved with a particularly shady company in the Ukraine and though he was more or less cleared of wrong doing, Trump thought that he might be able to dig up dirt on a political opponent to use in the upcoming election. The President of the United States does not have the authority to withhold funds that were appropriated by congress. It is especially egregious for a president to withhold funds in hopes of soliciting personal favors from foreign governments.

Why am I rehashing this? Well, around this time John Bolton resigned (was fired?) from his job as National Security Advisor and wrote a book about his year in the Trump administration. This book was not flattering to the president, and it was rumored that the book contained an account of the Ukraine affair that could be used to corroborate the allegations that a whistle blower made against Donald Trump. The White House worked very hard to censor this book. There’s at least one pending lawsuit out there trying to find the exact nature of what the Trump administration was trying to censor.

The Hunter Biden/Ukraine affair is what the book received arguably the most media attention for, but it makes up a relatively small percentage of the page count. The book is 600+ pages long and contains damning information about Trump’s entire foreign policy operation. Bolton talks about Trump’s negotiations and general interactions with several foreign leaders, both adversaries and allies. The administration argued that much of this information should be classified and that John Bolton lacked the authority to unilaterally release it. The administration did succeed in forcing some changes to the book, though they were not able to suppress everything they wanted. Hence Donald Trump’s claims on twitter that Bolton “illegally” released classified information. It’s important to note that it is the opinion of Trump and his lawyers that the court ruled incorrectly. As far as the rest of the system is concerned, Bolton did not break any laws.

What I’ve explained in the preceding paragraphs is a summary of certain events as I understand them. It is presented through the lens of my personal bias. If it wasn’t obvious, I don’t think Donald Trump’s legal arguments were meritorious. In that, I’m in agreement with the court. Should you now go forth and proclaim to the world that Donald Trump is a fool and a criminal based on this story I’ve told you? I would say, no probably not. I’ve given you a short summary of a complex legal issue that is steeped in years of political drama and gamesmanship from all parties involved. More research is needed to form a good conclusion.

Don’t get me wrong, I want you to agree with me. I want to make convincing arguments, but I’m not perfect. As much as I sometimes like to think to the contrary, I’m not always right. I don’t want an audience of yes-people. I want an audience of well-informed peers who can argue with me in good faith. You’re not going to be well-informed by reading summaries and one-sided articles. Don’t forget, I did mention that certain parts of the book were suppressed. This means that the court found at least some of the administration’s arguments persuasive.

At this point, pretty much everyone knows that they should be getting their information from a wide variety of sources. That’s media literacy 101. But when I see a dozen summaries of a fairly important book on Goodreads, one of which is done by an author called “BooksforBusyPeople,” I can’t help but think we’re still missing something. John Bolton’s book is not a complex legal document or a jargon-laden scientific study. You don’t need an expert to simplify or translate this text for you. You can just go read what John Bolton has to say for yourself. Yes, the book is very long and very dry, but it’s also pretty accessible. No one said becoming well-informed would be fun.

Whenever possible, I think we should be striving to get as close to the source material in our news as we can. Read court transcripts. Watch the whole testimony. If you need an expert to help you understand a document, that’s fine, but consult a wide variety of experts. Try to gather enough background information to be able to assess which experts are trustworthy. If you’re thinking that this all sounds like too much work, that you can’t possibly squeeze all this reading and research into your life, then I’ll share with you a lesson I’ve had to learn repeatedly. If you don’t have time for the homework, then you don’t have time for the argument. Please, please do not think I’m speaking down to you. I’m saying this to myself every bit as much as I’m saying it to you, because this brings me to my next point.

Political Burnout

I’ll talk about this a little bit on an upcoming episode, but this election really physically exhausted me in a way that few political events ever have. The incredible success of right wing disinformation campaigns in the weeks following the election has caught me off guard. I don’t mind talking with people who disagree with me. I don’t mind debating the merits of a free market healthcare solution versus Medicare-for-All. As long as we’re all arguing in good faith and trying to solve the problem, I’m happy. What scares me, truly scares me, is when objective reality is no longer objective. For example, many of Trump’s post-election court cases have been dismissed or withdrawn. I’m still arguing with people who don’t believe that’s true, even though you can simply check the court documents. I honestly cannot tell if I’m being trolled or if I’m encountering true believers.

Like I said, I don’t want anyone, left or right, to simply take my word for anything. At some point though, we need to agree on a few basic, objective facts. Two plus two must equal four. When I have to argue with someone who thinks that well-documented and easily proven facts are “fake news”, I get sloppy and frustrated. I start taking on positions and arguments that I’m not well-read enough to take on. I start breaking my own rule. This always leads to problems. I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but when I have a complete grasp on an issue I’m able to argue with authority and patience. When my arguments are built on shaky facts whose sources I don’t remember, then I start to get flustered. When that happens it’s best to step away if you can. It’s time to hit the books.

I should clarify that you’ll never know everything about a particular topic. If I only spoke about matters I was truly an academic expert on, then I would never speak. As much as my friends and family may prefer it that way, I simply must hear the sound of my own voice. I try to know enough to make well reasoned arguments, but also recognize when I’ve been proven wrong. It is ok to admit that someone else is right. In fact, debate only works when we’re open to the possibility that we’re wrong. Which is why we can’t debate the objective reality. I’m not open to admitting that two plus two is not four (except extremely large instances of two, haha funny math joke). To this end, I’ll leave you with one final lesson that I’ve had to learn and re-learn. Attack the argument, not the person. It’s a lot easier to admit we’re wrong when our identity and reputation are not on the line. Even if the person is actually an asshole, it’s in all our best interest to not get personal.

Hopefully one day we can have that good faith discussion about policy that I dream about. In the meantime, I will be taking my own advice, shutting off my twitter, and retreating into my pile of books. I sense that there will be a whole new set of issues that I need to prepare for.

Ben

I co-host the Words About Books podcast with my writing partner Nate.

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