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Who can we trust?

How can we cultivate a healthy skepticism of our institutions even as we rely on them for information, knowledge, and crucially, protection from aspiring autocrats?

MRC billboard, Charlotte 2016. Emolchan1 via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0.

At some point since the US presidential election on November 8 2016 you’ve probably been told that ‘our institutions are in crisis.’ The media is menaced by Twitter mobs taking their cues from the White House. Academics are ignored even more than usual. The intelligence community is subjected to ‘deep state’ conspiracy theories. Scientists are treated with mindless suspicion. What brought us to this point?

For many people the answer is obvious: Donald Trump. But there are two big problems with this view: firstly, the idea that we can’t trust those with polished credentials and college degrees isn’t new, nor has it been confined to the “Pizzagate” wing of the far-right. In fact, it has deep roots on the left.

Moreover—and perhaps more disturbingly—the whirling diatribes of Trump and his supporters do actually hint at some truths. We don’t have to wear ‘Make America Great Again’ hats to realize that the media is often corrupt, that the FBI is not a dispassionate guardian of the US constitution, and that scientists can be wrong or misleading.

This speaks to the core of the challenge we face: how can we cultivate a healthy skepticism of our institutions even as we rely on them for information, knowledge, and crucially, protection from aspiring autocrats? Who can we trust?

Throughout American history these questions have been particularly difficult for the left. On the one hand, there is the legacy of ‘progressives’ emerging at the beginning of the 20th Century: men (and they were mostly men) whose gospel was science, rationality and enlightened political leadership.

In his days as a political scientist, Woodrow Wilson was a leading figure in this movement, blending reformism with elitism in his call for the United States to embrace more elements of the British constitution. With fewer restrictions on party leaders and less rigid ‘checks and balances,’ he argued, Britain had become much better at empowering wise men than the Americans, who were stuck with their messy separation-of-powers and ponderous congressional committees.

Like many of his progressive contemporaries, Wilson also believed passionately in Science (with a capital ‘S’), including the promise of eugenics  through which society could be remade from its biological foundations. His shameless racism and aggressive repression of the left during the First World War has led to Wilson’s exclusion from many progressive narratives, but the next Democratic President, Franklin Roosevelt, remains front-and-center.

Roosevelt’s own faults are numerous, including his timidity on African-American civil rights and his irredeemable assault on Japanese-Americans in World War II. But his role in creating the modern American welfare state ensures that he is still frequently venerated. In pursuing this mission, his commitment to expertise—embodied in the “Brain Trust” network of economists, lawyers, sociologists, scientists and social workers who designed the “New Deal”—stands in sharp contrast to President Trump and his cabinet of unqualified, unprincipled and self-enriching vandals.

This was old-school progressivism at its finest: recruiting and trusting the best available minds to grapple with stubborn social injustices. Yet the left has never fully embraced this strand of thought. For one thing, high-minded and public-spirited “Brain Trusts” have often let us down. Roosevelt’s, for example, surgically excluded African-Americans from almost every New Deal program, especially labor protection, social security and federal housing assistance, largely to mollify a Southern-dominated Congress. The Wilsonian experts also became autocratic as soon as they lurched into World War I. More recently, Barack Obama’s professorial team promised the necessary revolution of universal health care—and instead delivered a 900-page bureaucratic maze.

The left, then, has good reason to treat even the most brilliant progressive minds with suspicion, but this impulse goes beyond the question of trusting or distrusting politicians and their advisers.

Take, for instance, the left’s approach to science. Today, we ridicule the flat earthers, the young earthers, the creationists, the biblical literalists and the climate deniers for their rejection of scientific facts. However, we also know that science is often distorted and abused: to sell heavy and addictive narcotics as every-day painkillers, for example; to promote new drugs before their side-effects are known; or to conduct experiments on the most vulnerable people in society.

These tensions were best exemplified by the three-time Democratic Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who is often remembered for his fumbling attack on the teaching of evolution in the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” trial. Now mainly the subject of scorn, in his time Bryan was considered one of the great spokesmen of the left, and his concerns that science could be “an evil genius” in war, or could build a cold society of “intelligence not consecrated by love” are far from antiquated. Indeed, they reflect intellectual and spiritual dilemmas that we are yet to overcome.

There are similar difficulties with the media. At the most basic level, journalists, like scientists, have the mundane yet indispensable job of giving us information. They also—depending on our mood and political allegiances—regularly alternate in the public mind between the image of guardians of heroic truth and scurrilous servants of those in power.

Because the Trump movement has taken so much joy from hitting the ‘fake news’ punching bag, many on the left have rallied around the cause of press freedom. In principle this is a very good thing, but again, the larger picture is complicated.

Even as we condemn the notion that the New York Times, the Washington Post, MSNBC or CNN constitute “enemies of the people,” we shouldn’t forget that they all, to some extent, sold us the Iraq War, or—in the case of the broadcasters—gave Candidate Trump the endless free publicity that was central to his campaign’s success. And in their zeal to report on the ‘epidemic of fake news’ online, some of these media outlets have also, since the election, played an unpleasant role in smearing small, often left-wing websites as tools of ‘Russian propaganda.’

To the extent that there is a crisis of confidence in the American media, it cannot solely be attributed to Trump. Instead, it stems from the commercialization and centralization of media ownership—trends that have crushed local, independent media and promoted the kind of ratings-worship infamously distilled in Les Moonves’s summary of Trump as “bad for America” but “damn good for CBS.”

Comparable pressures have squeezed the knowledge and information producers of academia. Although there is no clamor for ratings or sensational headlines, there is the same financial and employment insecurity that constricts time, freedom and independence. The results are predictable: history professors scrambling around desperately for funding; new PhDs taking jobs with whatever lobbying firm will keep them off food stamps; and overworked graduate students mumbling ‘publish or perish’ in their sleep.

In this context, it’s no surprise to hear stories of respected academics selling their expertise to the oil industry or freedom-loving government agencies like the CIA. It’s even less surprising to see the public’s total lack of enthusiasm for ‘outreach’ proposals like teams of academics sifting through the news: separating real from fake; good from bad; and, presumably, Russian from red-white-and-blue American.

To be sure, market forces can’t take all the blame for this situation. Few peer-reviewed journal articles, even in supposedly accessible fields like my own (international relations), make the slightest effort to use language that connects with anyone other than the mysterious gatekeepers who are empowered to say ‘accepted,’ ‘rejected’ or ‘revise and review.’ Everyone else can justly claim to be suspicious of self-appointed authority figures who seem to deliberately exclude them from discussion and debate.

In short, despite their differences, society’s expert authorities display several common signs of decay. Although some are undoubtedly self-inflicted, many are also structural, rooted in a near-crippling exposure to the imperatives of what we fatalistically call ‘the market.’

But this market has not been created by an ‘invisible hand’ or by the actions of Donald Trump alone, but by much longer-term actions and institutions: the profit-driven patent regime that pushes medical research towards male baldness over malaria, for example; the collapse of public funding for universities; and the refusal of media barons to tolerate even minimal job security demands from their newsrooms.

Because this mess is human-made, we can collectively clean it up. A good start would be to pursue the complete opposite goals and policies of Trump and his friends. Their attempt to eviscerate public science agencies was thankfully contained by Congress, but this is small consolation when the Secretary of Education is killing investigations into fraudulent colleges and the Federal Communications Commission is encouraging the growth of media monopolies (except CNN) on and offline. What is needed is more, not less public money in all these areas; strong, not supine regulation of media oligarchs; and an attack on, not an embrace of, snake oil universities. 

Would this be enough to restore trust? It wouldn’t eliminate the expert who abuses their power or the citizen who hides their cash in a mattress. But it could go some way towards eliminating a culture in which knowledge is the property of the highest bidder, helping us to tell the difference between the scientist and the fracking lobbyist, the journalist and the lurid entertainer, the historian and the paid-for hagiographer.

Perhaps then we could begin the task of refining our old and precious gifts of skepticism, doubt, critical thought and imagination.  

About the author

Harry Blain is a Graduate Center Fellow pursuing a PhD in Political Science at the City University of New York. He has previously lived and worked in Sydney, Edinburgh and London. Follow him on Twitter @Hblain.


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