The need for accurate information as the basis for reasonable actions

It is impossible to make a good decision if you don’t have all the facts you need to consider.  Information, it seems absurd to point out, is necessary for making informed decisions.  The partisan oversimplification of complex problems, while good for marketing on hats and bumper stickers, and winning partisan elections (of course) is a big part of the problem of trying to be an effective citizen in a democracy.   “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” is no longer the punchline of a joke, we are up against it daily from the highest levels of our contentious, embattled government.  Nowhere was it more explicitly stated than in the president’s remarks to a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Kansas City the other day:

President Donald Trump: “Just stick with us. Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news. … Just remember, what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”   [1]  

I heard a great conversation between Jeremy Scahill and a historian named Nikhail Pal Singh on the podcast Schahill hosts in which the idiotic, ahistorical oversimplification in American politics, which leads to the destruction of political intelligence, was very productively kicked around between them.  The conversation was part of Scahill’s admirable ongoing effort to provide critical historical context. I have transcribed the section of the recent Intercepted podcast that caught my ear (the interview begins at 40:30).

After noting that “POTUS” sees the world in starkly competitive, transactional terms, and has simplistically externalized evil on to the Other, the historian and Scahill discuss the need to have a realistic conversation about solving world problems now, while we have the resources and ability to do it.  The historian, Nikhail Pal Singh, nails a lot of important insights in a row.

Nikhail Pal Singh:  A lot of the ways Americans like to talk about what’s wrong really have the most fanciful aspects to them, they’re almost completely abstract.   The idea that somehow the problem is the porous border, or the problem is Russia, and Russian interference, these don’t connect really to any concrete analysis of what is actually going on in the world, or what is actually going on in the country.    

As long as that’s true we’re always going to be flailing about and casting about for explanations for what ails us that don’t really match up with reality. 

Jeremy Scahill:  (Asks Pal Singh what he thinks about the loose political use of of highly charged words like “treason”.   Scahill then plays clips of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and others solemnly comparing Trump’s recent performance with Putin at Helsinki to “Pearl Harbor” and “9/11”, overwrought hyperbole that strips events of their historical meaning and context.)

Scahill asks how this kind of historically tone-deaf rhetoric will “impact our political intelligence going forward, and also our ability to actually keep a grasp on historical context?”

Nikhail Pal Singh:   These kind of remarks just illustrate the lack of knowledge of U.S. history and how profound that is among many of these commentators.  How do we attain political intelligence?   How do we attain the kind of understanding and ability to make assessments in an information environment that’s filled with uncertainty and that’s always going to have dimensions of uncertainty in it?  

How do we create the basis for common action in a period in which many of the most powerful forces in the world are actually invested in the fragmentation of communities, in the fragmentation of people’s ability to think clearly and act collectively? 

How do we build up, or rebuild, collective capacities, because I think the best information comes from people being able to reason in common in a context in which they can inform each other and seek out new information, if they don’t have adequate information. And I think the time frame of a lot of what happens, also makes that very, very difficult to do.

As a historian, you know, when I read those kinds of comments I try not to despair, because I look at it and I think it’s just silly to compare this summit [with Putin] to the worst moments in American history in a country that essentially committed genocide against an indigenous people, dropped atomic bombs on Asia, killed three million people in Southeast Asia,  has barely been a liberal democracy for fifty years, having lived its entire career as a country built on white supremacy.  I mean, these are the broad, basic facts of American history.

I think a lot of people understand now, a lot more people understand, a lot more people, I think, are thinking about what it might mean to try to make the United States into a decent place.  But, obviously, the forces that are arrayed against us in doing this, most of all the Trumpists and white supremacists, but then, also, the centrist Democrats who really would like all of this to go away so they could to get back to business as usual, are kind of in the way of that broader, popular recognition of the need to look at our own country and to think about what it means to heal ourselves, to really correct the course we’ve taken in foreign affairs, and domestically, at the same time.

Jeremy Scahill:  OK “comrade” Nikhail Pal Singh, how much is Putin paying you for that “whataboutism” that you’re pretending is actually history? 

Nikhail Pal Singh:   I’ve said this before, and I don’t think it’s whataboutism to say that the biggest threats in the United States come from decisions that have been taken, legally, in full transparency, within our own system.   Citizens United, Shelby v. Holder [2], one unleashes the power of corporate money and dark money into our politics with no limit and the other guts the Voting Rights Act in a country that has been built on racial segregation and racial violence.    How both those things happen in this moment, I think, is very,  very significant in understanding where we found ourselves in 2016. 

And you didn’t need the Russian intervention for those things to happen.  Those things were driven internally, they were driven by the plutocratic insurgency on the one hand, that equates money and speech, and they were driven by the longer legacy of divisive, racial, white supremacy politics which has never been content with the idea of the United States actually being a democracy that included the diverse people who have been part of building this country for over two hundred years, many of whom were brought here involuntarily.  So we haven’t made our peace, as a country, with that history.

At the end of his life Martin Luther King Jr. outlined the problems we face in becoming what he called a beloved community, a community that could act in concert and think of itself as such.  And he called them the interrelated evils of Racism, Materialism and Militarism.

Racism, Materialism and Militarism are still really what bedevil us.  Neither the Republican party, which is certainly more culpable for the situation we find ourselves in, nor the Democratic party which is certainly equally beholden to materialism and militarism, at the very least, want to deal with these issues.  Neither really wants to address how we’ve lost the ability to function in some way as a polity, addressing the things that are most urgently at stake for most people. 


Rarely, if ever, have I heard the issue of America’s historical ignorance, and how it affects electoral politics and policy,  put more cogently or concisely.  These questions make a thoughtful citizen think hard about the predictable price those who never bother to even glance at the lessons of history must pay, along with the rest of us. 

Without information, and a working knowledge of the worst mistakes desperate people have made in the past, various deals struck with various devils in different ages (often weak, tortured, cruel men posing as “strongmen”) you and me, my friend, might as well stick a fucking fork in ourselves.  

As no less an authority than America’s foremost authority points out:

“Just stick with us. Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news. … Just remember, what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

Ignorance is bliss, fellow citizens, until they send guys with guns to force you to come with them.


[1]  source

 [2]  This disastrous, democracy-slashing 2013 Supreme Court decision, another 5-4 partisan decision, hangs on the vote of “swing vote” Justice “My Legacy!  Mr. Trump, my legacy!!” Kennedy who voted with the conservative corporatist block in this stunning, unappealable decision.   The conservative justices decided that in a post-racial society that had already elected a Negro as president there was no longer any need to scrutinize the voting practices in formerly overtly racist states, states that had long histories of unconstitutionally disenfranchising voters based on race and party affiliation (hence the Voting Rights Act of 1965).    The truth of this post-racial state of affairs was “affirmed” by many of the states in question immediately passing new restrictions on minority voting.  

USA!   USA!!!!

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