Some years ago, I watched a screening of a film about Daniel Ellsberg and the release of the Pentagon Papers. The film was shown in the U.S. Capitol, and Ellsberg was present, along with others, to discuss the movie and take questions afterwards.
I've just read Chris Hayes' new book "Twilight of the Elites," and am reminded of the question that progressive blogger and then-Congressman Alan Grayson staffer Matt Stoller asked Ellsberg.
What, Stoller wanted to know, should one do when (following the 2003 invasion of Iraq) one has come to the realization that the New York Times cannot be trusted?
The first thing I thought to myself upon hearing this was, of course, "Holy f---, why would anyone have ever trusted the New York Times?" In fact I had already asked a question about the distance we'd traveled from 1971, when the New York Times had worried about the potential shame of having failed to publish a story, to 2005 when the New York Times publicly explained that it had sat on a major story (about warrantless spying) out of fear of the shame of publishing it.
But the reality is that millions of people have trusted and do trust, in various ways and to various degrees, the New York Times and worse. Ellsberg's response to Stoller was that his was an extremely important question and one that he, Ellsberg, had never been asked before.
It's a question that Hayes asks in his book, which can be read well together with Chris Hedges' "Death of the Liberal Class." Hedges' book goes back further in U.S. history to chart the demise of liberal institutions from academia to media to labor. Hayes stays more current and also more conceptual, perhaps more thought-provoking.
Hayes charts a growing disillusionment with authorities of all variety: government, media, doctors, lawyers, bankers. We've learned that no group can be blindly trusted. "The cascade of elite failure," writes Hayes, "has discredited not only elites and our central institutions, but the very mental habits we use to form our beliefs about the world. At the same time, the Internet has produced an unprecedented amount of information to sort through and radically expanded the arduous task of figuring out just whom to trust." Hayes calls this "disorienting."
While I have benefitted from Hayes' brilliant analysis, I just can't bring myself to feel disoriented. I can, however, testify to the presence of this feeling in others. When I speak publicly, I'm often asked questions about how to avoid this disorientation. I spoke recently about the need to correct much of what the corporate media was saying about Iran, and a woman asked me how I could choose which sources of news reporting to trust. I replied that it is best to watch for verifiable specifics reported by multiple sources, to begin by questioning the unstated assumptions in a story, to study history so that facts don't appear in a vacuum, and to not blindly trust or reject any sources -- the same reporter or outlet or article could have valuable information mixed in with trash. Such critical media consumption may not be easy to do after a full day's work, I'll grant you. But it's not any harder to do than reading the New York Times and performing the mental gymnastics required to get what you've read to match up with the world you live in.
The most serious danger that Hayes highlights as arising from a decline in trust for authorities lies in the large percentage of Americans who disbelieve in global warming:
"The challenge of climate change forces us to stare into the dark void left by the collapse of traditional institutional authority. One democratic political operative I know calls this feature of modern public life 'post-truth politics.' Without some central institutions that have the inclination, resources, and reputational capital to patrol the boundaries of truth, we really do risk a kind of Hobbesian chaos, in which truth is overtaken by sheer will-to-power."
Now I'm reminded of Albert Camus lamenting the demise of religious dogma. Oh my goodness! If we can't blindly believe as permanent fact whatever some ancient book or robed preacher has to say, all will be absurdity. My gosh, we'll have to . . . (oh, the horror!) think for ourselves!
Hayes is 100% right to highlight the danger of the destruction of the atmosphere. Of course, even if 95% of Americans admitted to the facts (as no doubt they will at some point, possibly when it's too late), barring major concerted action -- as opposed to mere belief -- by at least 1 or 2 percent of us, our government would proceed merrily along its destructive way. But can we get to that 95% agreement mark by persuading people to trust authority?
I think people are listening to authorities -- they're just the wrong ones. Rather than listening to scientists about science, they're listening to jackasses with radio shows who know nothing about science. Back in the heyday of belief in authorities (whenever that was) people didn't always listen to scientists about evolution; many preferred to listen to charismatic charlatans rejecting evolution. Perhaps as much as restoring a willingness to trust authorities, we need to instill a desire to learn from would-be authorities enough to judge which ones deserve our trust on matters beyond our own comprehension or direct knowledge.
Climate change is not theoretical. There is evidence that can be shown to people, if they can get beyond the rejection of pointy-headed scientists that Hayes notes, and if they can also get beyond the religious belief that humans couldn't harm the earth if they tried, not to mention the religious belief that harming the earth is unimportant or desirable.
Climate change increasingly can be shown to people up-close-and-personal. And when it can't, the magic of video and photography can show it to us from elsewhere on the planet. Learning to look beyond the borders of the United States would do as much for our society as trusting intellectuals would.