Can We Get Along Without Authorities?

Some years ago, I watched a screening of a film about Daniel Ellsberg and the release of the Pentagon Papers.  The film was shown in the U.S. Capitol, and Ellsberg was present, along with others, to discuss the movie and take questions afterwards.

I’ve just read Chris Hayes’ new book Twilight of the Elites, and am reminded of the question that progressive blogger and then-Congressman Alan Grayson staffer, Matt Stoller, asked Ellsberg.

What, Stoller wanted to know, should one do when (following the 2003 invasion of Iraq) one has come to the realization that the New York Times cannot be trusted?

The first thing I thought to myself upon hearing this was, of course, “Holy f—, why would anyone have ever trusted the New York Times?”  In fact, I had already asked a question about the distance we’d traveled from 1971, when the New York Times had worried about the potential shame of having failed to publish a story, to 2005 when the New York Times publicly explained that it had sat on a major story (about warrantless spying) out of fear of the shame of publishing it.

But the reality is that millions of people have trusted and do trust, in various ways and to various degrees, the New York Times and worse.  Ellsberg’s response to Stoller was that his was an extremely important question and one that he, Ellsberg, had never been asked before.

It’s a question that Hayes asks in his book, which can be read well together with Chris Hedges’ Death of the Liberal Class.  Hedges’ book goes back further in U.S. history to chart the demise of liberal institutions from academia to media to labor.  Hayes stays more current and also more conceptual, perhaps more thought-provoking.

Hayes charts a growing disillusionment with authorities of all variety: government, media, doctors, lawyers, bankers.  We’ve learned that no group can be blindly trusted. “The cascade of elite failure,” writes Hayes, “has discredited not only elites and our central institutions, but the very mental habits we use to form our beliefs about the world.  At the same time, the Internet has produced an unprecedented amount of information to sort through and radically expanded the arduous task of figuring out just whom to trust.”  Hayes calls this “disorienting.”

While I have benefitted from Hayes’ brilliant analysis, I just can’t bring myself to feel disoriented.  I can, however, testify to the presence of this feeling in others.  When I speak publicly, I’m often asked questions about how to avoid this disorientation.  I spoke recently about the need to correct much of what the corporate media was saying about Iran, and a woman asked me how I could choose which sources of news reporting to trust.  I replied that it is best to watch for verifiable specifics reported by multiple sources, to begin by questioning the unstated assumptions in a story, to study history so that facts don’t appear in a vacuum, and to not blindly trust or reject any sources — the same reporter or outlet or article could have valuable information mixed in with trash.  Such critical media consumption may not be easy to do after a full day’s work, I’ll grant you.  But it’s not any harder to do than reading the New York Times and performing the mental gymnastics required to get what you’ve read to match up with the world you live in.

The most serious danger that Hayes highlights as arising from a decline in trust for authorities lies in the large percentage of Americans who disbelieve in global warming:

“The challenge of climate change forces us to stare into the dark void left by the collapse of traditional institutional authority.  One democratic political operative I know calls this feature of modern public life ‘post-truth politics.’  Without some central institutions that have the inclination, resources, and reputational capital to patrol the boundaries of truth, we really do risk a kind of Hobbesian chaos, in which truth is overtaken by sheer will-to-power.”

Now I’m reminded of Albert Camus lamenting the demise of religious dogma.  Oh my goodness!  If we can’t blindly believe as permanent fact whatever some ancient book or robed preacher has to say, all will be absurdity. My gosh, we’ll have to …  (oh, the horror!) think for ourselves!

Hayes is 100% right to highlight the danger of the destruction of the atmosphere.  Of course, even if 95% of Americans admitted to the facts (as no doubt they will at some point, possibly when it’s too late), barring major concerted action — as opposed to mere belief — by at least 1 or 2 percent of us, our government would proceed merrily along its destructive way.  But can we get to that 95% agreement mark by persuading people to trust authority?

I think people are listening to authorities — they’re just the wrong ones.  Rather than listening to scientists about science, they’re listening to jackasses with radio shows who know nothing about science.  Back in the heyday of belief in authorities (whenever that was) people didn’t always listen to scientists about evolution; many preferred to listen to charismatic charlatans rejecting evolution.  Perhaps as much as restoring a willingness to trust authorities, we need to instill a desire to learn from would-be authorities enough to judge which ones deserve our trust on matters beyond our own comprehension or direct knowledge.

Climate change is not theoretical.  There is evidence that can be shown to people, if they can get beyond the rejection of pointy-headed scientists that Hayes notes, and if they can also get beyond the religious belief that humans couldn’t harm the earth if they tried, not to mention the religious belief that harming the earth is unimportant or desirable.

Climate change increasingly can be shown to people up-close-and-personal.  And when it can’t, the magic of video and photography can show it to us from elsewhere on the planet.  Learning to look beyond the borders of the United States would do as much for our society as trusting intellectuals would.

War is a problem that, to my mind, resembles climate change.  Either can destroy us.  Either can be better understood by looking outside the United States.  Hayes, in describing well the gap between those in power in Washington and the other 99% of us, describes in particular the gap between the war deciders and that sliver of the U.S. population that actually fights the wars.  But what about the gap between us and the victims of our wars?  What about the power of patriotic flag-waving to overcome concern for troops, even among the troops themselves, who could and should refuse illegal orders?

Hayes draws the right parallel between our age and the 1770s.  We are in an era of taxation without representation.  Majority opinion is opposed by our government on every major issue.  Hayes even points out the danger lurking in the fact that the one institution people claim to trust is the military.  It’s worth drawing on the public’s contempt for every other form of authority, I think, to point out that the top commanders in the military are, in fact, banksters and politicians.

I suspect that the key to avoiding disorientation is to expect shortcomings.  We probably shouldn’t worry as much as Hayes does about whether baseball players use steroids.  We should probably expect a church that lies about the finality of death to lie about other things, including child abuse.  It’s not all the members of the church that did that; it’s a small group of very powerful people at the top.  In politics too, we should recognize the corrupting influence of power.  But we shouldn’t fault humanity because presidents are murderous thugs.  We should recognize the elite, as Hayes defines them, as elite.  We should be aware of their patterns of wrong-doing, rather than fantasizing that half of them, belonging to one of the two big political parties, are our close friends and role models.  That way lies disillusionment and disorientation.

We don’t need to get the mechanics right.  We won’t fix our government by ending the filibuster or by amending the Constitution to point out that corporations aren’t people and buying stuff isn’t protected speech.  I’m in favor of those things, but fundamentally we need to change our culture, create and follow better models, develop social capital of trust and community.

And yet, we’ll need to get some of the mechanics of government right too.  The founders of the United States, for all they got wrong, got power right in many ways.  Presidents were denied the power to launch wars.  The people’s representatives were given the power to impeach presidents.  The rule of law was placed above the law of rulers.  We need to recover all of that.  And doing so will require — as Hayes recommends — placing the power of the people to control the elite higher on our agenda than cheerleading for the half of the elite belonging to one of the two parties.

Hayes’ book — as is fairly typical of political books — has a title that at first sounds optimistic, but 215 of its 240 pages are devoted to describing the disaster under way, while the last 25 pages are set aside for the topic of what we might do about it.  Basically, Hayes recommends that we build a movement for progressive taxation by joining forces with upper-middle-class right wingers.  This might not be as crazy as it sounds.  We don’t need to find right wingers who favor progressive taxation, but we do need to create them.  No doubt that sounds extremely “elitist,” but we can create such people out of their own beliefs.

Hayes points to a 2010 study by economists Michael Norton and Dan Ariely who found that Americans dramatically underestimate the current level of wealth inequality in their country.  Very few are really aware that 400 people have an average income more than ten thousand times that of the bottom 90 percent of us.  Norton and Ariely also found that “respondents constructed ideal wealth distributions that were far more equitable than even their erroneously low estimates….  All demographic groups — even … Republicans and the wealthy — desired a more equal distribution of wealth than the status quo.”

We won’t build this movement without experts and reliance on them.  But we will only do it without tyrants, and with a view of the future designed around active participation in self-governance as citizens, not lemmings.

Twilight of the Elites is an excellent guide post.  The similarly titled Twilight of the Idols by Friedrich Nietzsche famously claimed: “What does not destroy me makes me stronger.”  That’s a statement that becomes true as one lives it for oneself.  For his part, Nietzsche wrote it and quickly lost his mind.  If that’s disorienting, you’re still looking for the wrong type of authority.

David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is director of and campaign coordinator for Swanson's books include War Is A Lie. He blogs at and War Is a He hosts Talk Nation Radio. Follow him on Twitter: @davidcnswanson and FaceBook. Read other articles by David.