LETTER FROM PRAGUE
Scottish journalist Bernard Thompson – currently teaching in the Czech Republic – takes the year-end to reflect on fake news, mainstream media, and the true difficulties of generalising about the behaviour of “stupid white men”.
One of the experiences I most value, living and working in Prague, is the opportunity to lead English conversation classes at two universities.
Spending time with groups of highly-intelligent people from another generation to mine, with ideas shaped by different experiences and perspectives, is both enriching and a welcome modifier of my ego. Everyone, of every age has knowledge I do not possess.
At one institution the students are artists in the widest sense. It is not at all unusual to be in a room with dancers, actors, jazz and classical musicians, filmmakers, visual artists and more. They range from first-year undergraduates to PhD candidates already working at elite national level in their fields.
Which makes it even more of a challenge for me, though an especially stimulating one, because they really know what they’re talking about and very often I don’t – at least yet.
At the other university, the classes are with scientists with a similar mix of academic levels. Chemists and biologists, including a couple of zoologists, and a parasitologist who has just published his first scientific paper.
It’s easy to discern predictable differences in their intellectual approaches, but there is no disparity in their levels of intelligence.
Many times, I’ve been thankful to remember the words of the former General Electric CEO, Jack Welch, that it is never important to be “the smartest guy in the room”.
But, in truth, there is a limit to my humility as, deep down, I feel smart enough to be there.
I’ve long recognised the value of diverse forms of intelligence – academic, emotional, practical and more. I have a couple of decades of experience that most of the students don’t have and I occasionally offer that as my part of the conversation.
For example, I often say that one of the most intelligent answers it is possible to give is: “I don’t know”.
To say, “I don’t know”, is not simply humble or self-deprecating; it is an acceptance that no one has perfect knowledge and that it is far smarter to willingly accept that fact than to let ego get in the way, resist learning from others and consequently make bad decisions, which quickly leave your ignorance writ large.
And yet, recently, two men of an age and education comparable to mine – one an editor of a legal publication, the other a sales executive currently working in the US – echoed a question that these same students often ask me when I caution them against accepting news from any source as fact.
“Where should we go for news that we can believe?”
My answer invariably disappoints: “Nowhere. Trust no one for your news.”
In fact, just last week, I flippantly asked a student if he trusted the BBC or me. He answered no on both counts, which gave me some satisfaction.
Withholding trust is not the same as being in a permanent state of distrust. Rather, it is to take the logical position of scepticism – that that which has yet to be proven cannot be accepted as fact.
To choose a default position of disbelief is to surrender the critical faculties just as surely as to put one’s faith in that elusive “trusted source”, which some say was brought to the sceptred isle by Joseph of Arimathea at roughly the same time as the countenance divine was shining forth upon a sacred land.
But to seek a single person or news organisation in which to invest all one’s faith would betray a naivety now largely lost to this hard-bitten world of internet (post-)truths and disinformation.
The advice I give is to read and watch as much as possible, from any source, and try to infer the truth that lies in-between.
Some say that Russia Today is a propaganda mouthpiece for Vladimir Putin. I strongly agree. But, armed with that perspective, I am interested in the reports emanating from its news site. I cannot, in conscience, praise Putin, especially on the subject of news. Because a number of journalists who have sought to scrutinise or criticise him have been found dead in highly suspicious circumstances.
On the other hand, “Auntie” BBC is the quintessentially British propaganda outlet. Historically, the British have been a curious breed in that they have so often tended to equate trustworthiness with a clipped public-school accent and random references to cricket.
No wonder so many tuned in to Lord Haw Haw and his “Germany calling” radio broadcasts on behalf of the Third Reich, when the Beeb was reporting little or nothing of the progress of the war. You could practically hear the starch in his white Oxford shirt chafing against a salmon-and-cucumber tie in William Joyce’s reports.
But while it was David Cameron who eventually disrupted the direct link between “Blighty Calling” – the BBC World Service – and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, few whimpers were ever raised in the mainstream media about the reliability of its output.
Don’t tell the conspiracy-theorists, but the BBC was still having certain journalism and engineering applications vetted by MI5, even after they had promised that they had stopped – and that fact is not contested.
But the Beeb, at almost 100 years old, remains the most trusted news source, and any of its alleged misdemeanours are to be considered mere whimsies, absolutely not inviting speculation as to its veracity. To do so would be to fly in the face of all received wisdom, accrued over generations of quality, objective broadcasting.
On the other hand, 2016 was the year in which “fake news” finally became accepted as “a thing”, largely thanks to Facebook and Barack Obama, whose 2008 “Yes, we can!” campaign for the presidency had included promises of major reform in Washington.
Neither Facebook nor Obama consider as fake news the output of Russia Today. No, that’s just propaganda, which we have always had and challenged with counter-propaganda.
You may think your vocabulary extends to a clear understanding of almost every four-letter-word. Fake that!
Fake news is the name given to websites that circulate the sort of stories that those holding a card saying “bona fide journalist” on the back most often rise above.
For news to be fake, it need not be untrue – simply from a non-established source. Newsnet, Bella Caledonia, Common Space, Wings and IndyRef 2, would be but a few examples.
No, fake news outlets are those that do not subscribe to accepted practices. They rarely have relationships with high-ranking insiders dripping carefully-placed leaks and scandals on the front pages.
Legitimate news relies overwhelmingly on contacts, which by definition means a personal relationship of some form. It doesn’t matter that, where there is a personal connection, there is the potential for bias emanating from personal loyalty or enmity, exploitation, bribery, blackmail or even planned and agreed manipulation.
That’s what the legitimate media thrives on and is, in a sense, how the most notorious spy of them all – Kim Philby – could operate as an agent and journalist at the same time with barely an establishment eyebrow raised as to whether “one of our own” working as an agent and correspondent for The Times was even playing the game.
The legitimate media are remarkably tolerant of spies or others, like Richard Gott, using their profession as cover, even though it could seem to legitimise despotic regimes throwing the odd hack in jail on “trumped-up” charges that they were not all that they seemed to be.
To the majority who trust in the mainstream media, suggestions that fake news malarkey should be moderated may seem tedious and relatively benign. After all, there are cranks, zealots and worse out there manipulating our media, even to the point of deploying special algorithms to foment hatred of Jews.
But, set against the other dominant narrative of the year, fake news takes on another pallor.
Because 2016 was also the year in which the doctrine of the stupid white man, to use a term popularised by Michael Moore, was accepted into dogma.
There were no legitimate reasons for voting for the United Kingdom to leave the EU – only the base reactions of the uneducated white male – the same demographic that could not see the sense of voting for Hillary Clinton because – well look at the other guy!
And before our eyes we have seen a case created for censorship by the only people we can be sure we can trust – governments across the world.
Taken together, the combination of stupid white men and fake news is being woven as a potent case for protecting the people from themselves.
And, in large numbers, the broad-minded, intelligent, elightened, people – the ones with degrees – seem all-too-willing to agree.
And yet, I am troubled by memories of men who fitted a similar demographic.
My father had something of an education – a proud product of St Mungo’s Academy.
Raised in the poverty of Glasgow in the 1930s – that most hoped would never be repeated – the sort of tertiary education that is now so commonly enjoyed, almost as a norm rather than a privilege, was never a viable prospect.
Nevertheless, he was a lover of learning. He frustrated his children reciting Shakesperian soliloquies, and adopted “O tempore! O mores!” as his personal catch phrase.
He adored classical music, especially Beethoven, a small bust of whom he kept near his bedside. He taught himself good French, had a solid grounding in Latin and a smattering of ancient Greek.
He, too, was from another era, one in which there was often an acceptance that those interested in the “higher pleasures”, as defined by Mill and other Utilitarians should be accorded some intellectual status.
But my father would never describe himself as “clever”. Quite the opposite, he would defer, sometimes infuriatingly, to people with degrees, dismissing the wisdom of Oz that not possessing a diploma does not equate to a lack of intelligence and that the converse is also the case.
My grandfather, on the other hand, was a properly uneducated white man. He was the son of a theatre manager and a celebrated actress who had two children out of wedlock, both of whom they abandoned to pursue the limelight without scandal in Stoke-on-Trent.
My grandfather’s education was in an approved school, after the alcoholic grandmother in whose charge he and his brother had been left was finally deemed unfit to look after the boys.
He went on to be a baker, a wit and the wisest man it has ever been my good fortune to be in company with. He also did more than anyone in my life to convince me of the merits of trade unionism, the self-assertion of the working class and, by extension, socialism.
I don’t recall him using any of those terms and he was no political preacher. Yet, without a morsel of self-pity, he regaled his grandson with practical examples of the life of his generation, setting a powerful context in which to view the miners’ strike of the 1980s as a battle that must be won.
I have met a few truly learned and well-read socialists whom I have respected – and a lot more of the “politically aware” with degrees who seemed to see socialism as a lifestyle choice every bit as profound as hipsterism. But no one ever seemed to be as convincing as that quietly-spoken, tolerant man, who always fought his corner, offering simple logic and life experience, but never sought to convert anyone.
I can’t say for sure how either man would have voted on Scottish independence or Brexit. I suspect that my father would have chosen “the devil you know” on both counts.
My grandfather had greater confidence in his beliefs, perhaps because he was never afflicted by the insecurity of believing that his intellectual status was undermined by a lack of three letters and a sheet of A3.
But I can say with certainty that both of them would have had the ability to do what so many of the great degree-laden masses, who now see the acquisition of a degree as a membership card to an elite club, could not.
If appropriate, either man would have been able to say, “I don’t know”.
Meanwhile the educated, “non-stupid” class waxes lyrical about the philosophical, moral, economic, legal and socio-political consequences of decisions made by stupid white men.
Three or four years at a university apparently endows people with remarkable powers. The ability to process advanced economics sufficiently to evaluate the relative arguments on which professors on the subject cannot agree, for example.
The educated class seems able to predict with certainty the implications for future world orders, based one a one-year unit in political history – or, in fact, a degree in accountancy, social policy, history, medicine, etc.
The terms, educated, intelligent, knowledgeable and wise are conflated, becoming virtual variants of the word, “worthy”.
There is an undercurrent to this that should be profoundly troubling to those who value democracy.
That is the implication that there are “wrong democratic choices”, that those who did not enjoy access to higher education have somehow less of a right to assert their democratic rights.
That stupid white men believed that £350m-a-week would be ploughed into the NHS; that the Tories, Labour or the LibDems would honour “the pledge”; that Donald Trump was not an agent of Moscow (which he almost certainly is not, despite the news.)
The logical extension of the “wise” accepting this narrative is that we take our knowledge from an elite class – the educated – much as we were once cajoled into accepting the word of the clergy who had the book-learning and moral rectitude to hand down their wisdoms to the dutiful throng below the pulpit.
That thinking invites exclusion of those who do not enjoy middle-class privilege, and reverses the advances made through centuries of toil and suffering.
The “War to End All Wars”, eventually led to the recognition of the right to self-determination; a right that was based on the free expression of the people, as a mass, not a trusted sector of society that would do the people’s thinking for them and benevolently define their choices and acceptable aspirations.
I suspect that the most powerful supporters of Barack Obama – the smart choice of the educated people, under whose watch Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street were considered necessary – care little more for what Donald Trump’s presidency will foist on America, than their British counterparts trouble themselves with lies about the funding of the NHS.
But they may care that an unanointed “outsider” (who is very much an insider) could symbolise the willingness of the uneducated white man to make a pro-active choice – to reject the smugness of those who believe that a lack of a university education is some sort of moral or intellectual defect.
The first groups targeted by Facebook’s purge of fake news were the “Alt-right” – a move which many educated liberals supported as they so often insist on “no-platforming” the extreme right, rather than having the confidence in themselves to simply win the argument.
What philosphical gymnastics are required to justify denigrating the majority and dismissing their choices as invalid, based on their perceived lack of education and the assumed superior judgement of the educated class that know what is best for them?
I am confident that the two uneducated white men, to whom I have referred, would have been able to make up their own minds when faced with the arguments of fascists – they lived through fascism in action, after all.
My educated peers, confronted with responses for which they were unprepared? Simply, I don’t know.