Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Value of Curiosity

Curiosity seems to be generally lacking as a contributing factor in our political discourse these days. Statements and claims are made that should trigger healthy bouts of skepticism and thorough efforts at verification. Instead, they are taken at face value and acted upon as if they are completely valid by readers or listeners lacking the curiosity to withhold judgements or reactions.

The phenomena of “fake news” is especially alarming. During the most recent presidential campaign, intentionally made-up stories were posted on the internet by people whose only interest was generating ad revenue with clicks. But this fake news has appeared all over the world for quite some time. A favorite example of mine is the one from October of 2015 about the 10th-grader in Canada that created a fake story on his cell phone while sitting in class. The headline: “Justin Trudeau To Build Marijuana Stores In Every City Across Canada.” The very next day, the story caused his AdSense account to increase by $900. Every dollar rung up by these bogus stories that are re-tweeted and opened over and over is testament to the lack of curiosity of their readers. How hard can it be in the age of Google to quickly fact check such dubious-sounding titles?

I, along with many others, find it troubling that an increasing number of news stories from so-called mainstream reporting outlets are also being called “fake”. Venerable organizations such as the New York Times and Washington Post have for years scrupulously ensured that their stories would hold up under scrutiny and could be verified. Despite that, the fashion is now to lump them in with the fake internet sites. The press are even called the “enemies of the people”. This is usually because they publish critical stories about the person doing the accusing, despite the truthfulness of the content. This is nothing less than the demeaning and marginalizing of a free press.

Conspiracy theories also rely on a lack of curiosity and skepticism. Those responsible for them take comfort in the knowledge that their fans will generally not take the time to verify them. Recently, one of these conspiracy purveyors struck gold. Last Thursday he accused the previous administration of wiretapping our current president. No proof was given, and despite that, the story was picked up by another site known for advancing conspiracy theories. Our current occupant of the Oval Office then made the accusation part of a series of tweets over this past weekend. Why was this story not considered fake news? Where was the curiosity to at least check with his advisors? With what has resulted, they probably would have loved to have the chance to intervene and educate.

In a post last December, I bemoaned the prospect of our country being led by an incurious president. There have been others with this quality, most notably Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The state of foreign affairs is perilous, and one of the most important charges a president has is the security of our country. How they treat the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) speaks volumes. Ironically, even this subject has spawned disinformation regarding President Obama. From the article, this speaks to his well-known curiosity: “Obama reads the PDB ahead of time and comes to the morning meeting with questions. Intelligence briefers are there to answer those questions, expand on a point or raise a new issue.”

The contrast is telling: “But Donald Trump, who defied all conventions of campaigning for the White House, is doing the same when it comes to the President's Daily Brief. Most days he has declined to receive the briefing, making it more of a weekly occurrence than a daily one.
‘Well, I get it when I need it. I don't have to be told — you know, I'm, like, a smart person...I don't have to be told the same thing and the same words every single day for the next eight years. It could be eight years — but eight years. I don't need that.”’

Curiosity has been defined as a passion or an appetite for knowledge, information, and understanding. The lack of it in our country as it applies to politics is what I find discouraging. Candidates make promises and some voters don’t seem to know or care whether they are even feasible. One vital area that voters could be more curious about is the effects of gerrymandering across the country. The next national census is in 2020. Pushing for redistricting with independent commissions, rather than with legislatures as is still the case in 37 States, may prove to be the most effective road to fairness.

It is said that elections have consequences. For example, some politicians insist that “trickle-down” economics will result in dramatic increases in jobs. It didn’t work in the years before President Bush, or when he tried it, but it comes up time after time. I have found the plight of the citizens of Kansas to be instructive. What their governor’s “real live experiment” in conservative fiscal policy represents is a peek into what could lie ahead for the country. That prospect is appalling when ones takes into account the comparison with our State.

It doesn’t have to be that the usual outcome for the electorate is feeling what amounts to buyer's remorse. We just have to learn from our mistakes and not repeat them.

D. Norman

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