The Terror of Popular Skepticism, Composing, 21/03/2017

I’m taking a break from my extended treatment of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s most canonical essays for some self-promotion. My latest essay just dropped at the Reply Collective, and I’ve had some follow-up ideas.

I always have follow-up ideas to these essays. Sometimes, they tumble out onto the blog and nothing much else happens with them. Sometimes, some of my SERRC colleagues pick them up formally or casually. Sometimes, we all have a big chat about it. Sometimes, I just write a follow-up essay for them later.

I’m actually waiting to hear back from Buzzfeed Reader about a pitch for basically the same essay, but rewritten in a more casual, journalistic tone.

In “Subverting Reality,” I consider that my own discussion of fake news will probably become obsolete or incomplete in the time between drafting and publication. Even though that was only about three weeks. I was half-serious, but only half-joking, since things really do change that fast in Trump’s world.

He is epochal.
And it turned out that I was right! The day “Subverting Reality” was published, FBI Director James Comey testified before the House Intelligence Committee about the ongoing investigation of the Trump Campaign (now the Trump Administration) regarding a possible quid pro quo with Vladimir Putin’s government.

How this all plays out will create a dire test for democracy – if a group of people accustomed for so long not to trust government and to believe the most ridiculous conspiracies about their opponents can believe inconvenient truths anymore.

There are significant numbers of Americans whose worldview is shaped so much by pernicious conspiracies – birtherism and pizzagate – that an intelligence community plot to destroy their movement’s leader is an ordinary thought. How does the truth win out in a society where lies are more trustworthy?

Call them institutional skeptics, because they’ve lost trust in the government institutions whose trustworthiness grounds the entire legitimacy of the state. A lot of those people are seniors who watch too much FOX News. But enough of them could also be in militias like Ammon Bundy’s.

Judging by what Comey said and pointedly avoided saying, many high-profile figures in the Trump campaign are under intense investigation. The collusion with the Russian government could constitute incredibly serious charges.

How do you convince people who’ve had their entire practical political worldview shaped by this culture of partisan falsity and conspiracy since the 11 September attacks to trust in democratic institutions again?

That's a terrifying and epochal question for the thinkers of social epistemology – in its most political sense, as the knowledge of the people – to grapple with.

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