Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Russian Meddling

 Special Counsel Mueller has brought a number of indictments against some Russian cyber-villains.  Like many of my fellow citizens I found some satisfaction in this news.  After all, speculations about Mr. Mueller’s investigations, animated in equal parts by righteous indignation and wishful thinking, have claimed many square inches of type on many front pages for many months without revealing much more news than that Washington political apparatchiks often tell lies, and sometimes under oath.  It is good to see that something is happening.  But what, exactly?

The Russians are accused of meddling in the American electoral process by introducing, through fraudulently employed social media sites, false and misleading reports intended to cause political confusion, and to foster or exacerbate social, racial, and political divisions and animosities.  What makes this “meddling” is the fact that its perpetrators are foreigners without political standing as American citizens, and that by fraud they disguise their true identity and motives.  The actual content of the injurious “information” is often very similar to that of the hugely expensive television attack ads that form such an important part of many if not most of our congressional, gubernatorial, and presidential campaigns.

There have been some pretty sensational instances of phony information.  In the final months of the presidential campaign there emerged among a not insignificant section of the electorate a belief in a pseudo-scandal involving a pizzeria in Washington, D.C., named Comet Ping Pong.  The claim was that Hillary Clinton, John Podesta, and perhaps other high-ranking members of the Clinton campaign were using the cover of this stromboli-emporium to run a pedophilia operation.  There was documentary proof of the criminal enterprise in Podesta’s  pirated emails, where he and/or members of his staff sometimes wrote of ordering “pizza,” this word, along with certain other alimentary denominators, being code for child sex slaves.  The manifest implausibility of this story reaches the threshold of the insane.  Nonetheless it was duly believed by a sector of the American electorate.  A righteous vigilante, rifle in hand, came up to Washington from somewhere in the South and strode into the premises of Comet Ping Pong to sort things out.

This episode was immediately named “Pizza Gate”.  Perhaps some linguist has already written the essay explaining why all scandals must now be “gates,” but I hope we might soon get beyond it.  Neither do I know whether the origins of Pizza Gate have any definite connection with Russian cyber-meddlers.  The limited research I have been able to devote to it suggests good old-fashioned home cooking.  But the conclusion that I reach is not that we have met the enemy, and it is Russian cyber-meddling; rather we have met the enemy, and we are it.

Chasing malicious foreign pranksters from Facebook cannot possibly safeguard “the integrity of the American electoral system” if a large number of American electors are invincibly ignorant.  And they are.  I refer not exclusively or even primarily to voters who are prepared to believe that the Comet Ping Pong Pizza Parlor is actually an infantile brothel—and then act upon their belief.

We too often forget just how radical is the idea behind our democracy: that every American citizen is equal in political rights to every other American citizen.  The fact that an ideal may seem to be blatantly contradicted by social reality does not mean it ceases to be an ideal, but it does invite us to examine the historical and intellectual context out of which the ideal emerged.  The Founders greatly expanded the idea of the electoral franchise as it existed in eighteenth-century England, but it was still by our current lights very narrow.  After the Civil War racial restrictions were abolished.  Early in the twentieth century the sex barrier fell.  Much more recently the age limit was lowered from the traditional twenty-one to eighteen.

There is no constitutional educational requirement for voters, and the “literacy tests” once common in southern states were actually bad-faith instruments of voter suppression.  But there was an assumption, and one upon which the health of the system depended, of the “reasonably informed” citizen.  In informal fact the level of “reasonable information” was taken to be that provided by the primary level of public education about the middle of the nineteenth century.  This included sound training in the two basic skills of literacy, and some mathematics, history, and “civics”.

There has always been a considerable gap between the ideal and the reality when it comes to a “reasonably informed” citizenry; but the fact is that these days about half of the American electorate is not merely somewhat deficient but appallingly ignorant.  At the height of the Iraq War, only sixteen percent of high school seniors were able to locate Iraq when presented with a map.  A few years ago Rick Shenkman, of the History News Network, published a book entitled Just How Stupid Are We?  Statistics answer the question.  Huge number of voters cannot name a single right from the Bill of Rights, cannot identify the three branches of government, cannot distinguish between the Senate and the House of Representatives, do not know that “Congress” has anything to do with either, cannot name their own senators or representatives, cannot define the word “judiciary”, and have not read a serious news article or analysis within the last year.  This is at a time when larger and larger numbers of young people are immersed in the Internet, often for hours a day.  According to David Brooks’s current column one sixth of the nation, across age lines, would approve of a military government for America.  Under these circumstances to identify “Russian meddling” as the great threat faced by American democracy seems just slightly myopic.   "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization,” Jefferson once wrote, “it expects what never was and never will be."