A case for why we need information reform

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Dunce_cap_from_LOC_3c04163uThe big popular word in contemporary American politics is “reform.”  Everyone wants some form of reform or another; there’s tax reform, and immigration reform, and campaign finance reform, and lobbying reform.  And while all of those are well and good, and necessary in their own ways, we tend to forget about the one type of reform that may not fix those other issues, but could certainly help them along quite a bit: information reform.

Information is something that the human race simply couldn’t exist without, like water, or food, or shelter, or a trusted pair of scissors when you’re trying to open one of those absurd hard-shell plastic packaging things in a hurry.  Our thirst for information is the root of our very existence; it’s what sets us apart from every other species on the planet.  It led to our languages, the construction of our roads… the invention of all our things.  And without information, we’d be naked, living in a field someplace, foraging for berries because we never learned to pick up a stick or a rock or some other blunt thing and bonk other creatures over the head so we could cook them and eat them.  I rather like bacon, as I’m sure most of you do as well.  Information plays a pretty important role in our eating it.

But information is an endangered entity today, a fact all the more troubling since we’re living in the dubiously ill-named information age.  Each and every day, our society is finding alarming new ways of dismantling, refuting, and ignoring information, and if this horrible trend continues, it won’t bode well for the human race… not in the slightest.

You’re probably wondering what the problem is.  After all, you can whip out your smart phone and look something up on Wikipedia in a matter of seconds, right?  Well, yes, you can, and regardless of the negativity Wikipedia faces, most of the information presented on that site is accurate, as much as any physical encyclopedia you can pull down from a library shelf.  Information is something we can readily access today, moreso than at any other moment in human history.  The real problem with information isn’t availability… it’s the desire to obtain it to begin with.

Let me illustrate the problem with an example.  A few weeks ago, I received an email from a woman in New Mexico.  She’d been Googling something about Ronald Reagan, and managed to find herself reading this article that I wrote for Newsvine back in May of last year.  In her email, she explained to me that everything I said in the article about Ronald Reagan wasn’t true, and that she’d Googled his story extensively in an effort to disprove what I’d said.  In doing so, however, she ended up learning that everything I said was, in truth, factual. That should’ve been the end of the story, right?

But then she did something that left me scratching my head to the point where you can probably see brain matter popping out of my skull right now.  After admitting that she’d gone through the laborious task of investigating my claims and learning they were factually correct, she said, and I quote, “all this proves is that Obama controls the media.”

Let that sink in for a moment.  Factual data, presented to her by what I can only assume were nonpartisan sources, didn’t jive with the complaint she was forming against my article, and so in turn, she invented a new fact, one without any factual merit whatsoever, to support the non-fact she was trying to prove.  And the worst part of it is, this isn’t an isolated incident.  In fact, it’s becoming the norm, especially in political debates.

At some point in the past century or so, ignorance became chic.  There’s a median range of knowledge our society allows you to obtain; too little, and you’re an idiot, but too much — more than what is required of you to pass through whatever school(s) you attend in life — and you’re labeled a “nerd,” which up until very recently was intended to be an insult.  That has changed, sort of, in recent years… something we’ll get to a bit later.

People are no longer made into celebrities because they accomplish great things, or exhibit some sort of exemplary talents worthy of envy.   The perfect model of a celebrity today?  Honey Boo Boo’s mother, June Shannon.  She is a walking, talking (if you can call it that) example of everything a human being should try to not be.  And a solid 90% of the people we try to pass off as celebrities today are varying degrees of June Shannon.  Kim Kardashian is easier to listen to and look at, but they both contribute equally to the human race.  And by “equally,” I actually mean “not even a little bit, in the slightest.”

Our culture has made stupidity into something worthy of celebrity.  We’ve found commonality in our love of watching ignorant people say and do ignorant things; it makes us feel better about ourselves, because we know that deep down, we’re better than these people.  But when our culture promotes ignorance as a primary facet of celebrity, what culture do we even have?

Ignorance has become such a mainstay in our society that it has found itself trickling into our politics as well, and that’s where things start to get truly dangerous.  George W. Bush was famously elected into the highest office in the nation because people wanted to drink a beer with him.  Sarah Palin is mostly a laughing stock, but there is a sizable swath of Americans who feel she’d actually make a great president.  We seem to have forgotten that stupid people are funny to listen to, and nothing more; we made them celebrities, but we never changed the basic caveat that celebrities are people we look up to and hope to see succeed.  And with that failure comes an army of morons infiltrating the highest echelons of our government.

Recently, a big conservative talking point has been that Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel has some sort of ties to an organization called “Friends of Hamas;” that he may have accepted speaker fees from that group.  Breitbart.com, Fox News, and a myriad of other conservative spouts have run with the story.  There’s just one small problem:  the whole thing spawned from New York Daily News reporter Dan Friedman, who used “Friends of Hamas” and “The Junior League of Hezbollah” as hyperbolic, hypothetical examples of organizations while discussing Hagel with a Republican.

This is a great example of genuine stupidity seeping into the ground water on Capitol Hill.  Political debate has shifted tempos in recent years, egged on by society at large.  Politicians, especially (but not exclusively) Republicans, legislate not based on the actual reality made up of facts and statistics, but on the reality they themselves create, based on hyperbole, rhetoric, and rumors.  They took up arms against the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) because of death panels that never existed.  They fought against raising the debt ceiling, even though it relates to paying for things we’ve already bought, regardless of the fact that our credit rating would be lowered (yes, that was purely Republicans who caused that).  If President Obama went on TV tonight and reminded the American people to breath, Republicans in the House and Senate and tens of thousands of conservatives all across America would suffocate themselves and be dead by tomorrow morning.

Surely we, the American people, must be purely to blame for all these terrible things we’ve done to information, right?  Not really.  Yes, we elect stupid people into office, and yes, we watch crappy brain-dead reality television shows, prompting TV networks to create more of them.  But we’re also facing a serious issue with our media.  It’s supposed to be their job to help correct our paths by keeping us informed on all things of relevance.  They’re doing quite the opposite instead.

News media in the United States is quite shameful.  Between Fox News telling you how to think, MSNBC telling you what you want to hear, and CNN telling you anything they can to get their ratings up, it’s amazing anyone in this country has any clue what’s happening in their world.  Some people realize the flaws and try to escape the major news networks, but in the end, they find themselves getting their information from bias websites with lackluster journalism skills and with terrible source-vetting capabilities.

The big news networks are following the trends the rest of our culture is laying out for them.  People want shock and awe, not carefully-crafted, intellectually-stimulating, non-bias and fair news reports.  Society made it cool to be dumb, and therefore, news networks think it’s cool to make the news dumb.  This horrrible trend has even infiltrated educational programming.  Tune into History Channel, or the Science Channel, or the Discovery Channel, or the so-called Learning Channel, at prime time on any weeknight.  Watch whatever show they’re presenting to you, and name for the rest of the class any single thing you actually learned about the world while watching it.

We very desperately need information reform.  We need to make intelligence cool again.  We need to start making celebrities out of people that inspire us through great and significant acts and abilities.  We need to learn before we vote, and elect smart people into office, and judge politicians by their merits rather than what other politicians say about them.  We need to change our hunger and our appetite for knowledge, and make our news and educational programming retool itself to offer up non-partisan reporting.  And this isn’t a reform the government can do for us.  This is something we all need to do on our own.  Because the next time I meet an adult American citizen whose incapable of naming our three branches of government, and wants to blather about politics for hours on end, I might just give up on the human race entirely.  I may as well, since the human race gave up on itself.

And now, a picture of a cat sleeping in a microwave.  Why?  Because for some people, this may be the most stimulation they get out of this article.

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