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[Letters]

Letters

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Have You Heard?

I felt torn reading Joseph Bernstein’s essay [“Bad News,” Report, September]. Bernstein is correct to note that the anti-disinformation industry is largely composed of elites alarmed by the erosion of their power. As marginalized groups have embraced social media as a way to bypass these old gatekeepers, disinformation panic has been expressed most loudly by those who feel anxious about being marginalized in turn.

Bernstein is also right to question assumptions made about social media’s ability to sell certain products and ideas. But his article minimizes media’s influence on society: look at the increases in flat-earth beliefs and teen depression that have been linked to how much time people spend on social media, in large part due to the retention and engagement metrics that drive such platforms. The fact that social-media giants don’t expertly control their own content should not be reason to downplay the damage they cause.

Mathieu Kennedy
Montreal

 

Bernstein alerts us to the ubiquity of disinformation and reminds us to remain vigilant and wary of so-called arbiters of truth, many of whom have vested financial and political interests. But he offers few explicit solutions. How do we get Americans to think critically about the information they consume? Education that is more questioning and less indoctrinating would be a great start. How do we achieve that? I wish I knew, but I am at least willing to admit my ignorance, something Bernstein paradoxically champions in his evocative essay.

Ken Benau
Oakland, Calif.

 

I found Bernstein’s exploration of disinformation to be disappointingly dated. He gives only passing mention to examples from the past few years—QAnon, the U.S. Capitol attack, conspiracies about the origins of COVID-19, and of course, the endless debates around masks and vaccines. By skirting the gravity of these issues, Bernstein misses two alarming evolutions that are happening right now: that of misinformation, from the level of counterfactual assertion to captured consensus; and that of disinformation—the deliberate manipulation of knowledge to skew, punish, and entice—from a tactic of dictators to something that some constituents in liberal democracies cheerfully embrace.

Zeus Yiamouyiannis
Penryn, Calif.

 

Third Eye Blind

Garret Keizer’s essay on stupidity and transcendence [“The Third Force,” Essay, September] does not transcend its own preconception that one side of America’s political spectrum is enlightened and the other is, well, stupid.

Stupidity is inherently a reactive cycle. In one of the essay’s more revelatory moments, Keizer writes, “Treat me like I’m stupid, and I’ll show you stupidity like you wouldn’t believe.” This remark approaches the truth of the matter, but Keizer stops short of applying it to our current political situation. I am someone writing from what Keizer calls “flyover country,” an appallingly dismissive but tellingly acceptable term for the interior region of the United States. I can say that it is exhausting to constantly be denigrated as a bunch of worthless, idiot rednecks. Our economic concerns are continuously dismissed as xenophobic white supremacy. In 2016, I watched in horror as Trump was elected, but it came as no surprise. Treat us like we’re stupid, and we’ll show you stupid like you wouldn’t believe.

If the stupidity cycle is to end, then this kind of “intellectual” hand-wringing needs to stop. We must transcend stupid stereotypes, exercise empathy, and take accountability for our current situation. There are no saints. But right now, there’s a whole lot of stupid—Keizer has it right about that.

Kenyon Thorp
Cornersville, Tenn.

 

Garret Keizer responds:

I agree wholeheartedly with Kenyon Thorp that the term “flyover country” is “appallingly dismissive,” which is why I never use it in my writing or my conversation and did not use it once in the essay she purports to quote. I did, however, use Eric Voegelin’s phrase “loss of reality,” and I leave it to her to judge whether attacking what isn’t on the page counts as a fair example of the same.

I also agree that the essay does not transcend my political preconceptions. Any attempt to do so would have been rather self-defeating in a piece that posits the itch for easy transcendence as a cause of stupidity. But if, as Thorp claims, I see only one side of the political spectrum as stupid, why did I find examples of stupidity among partisans on both sides of the gun-control and abortion debates, and not least of all in my own (identifiably left-of-center) self?

I would never denigrate Thorp or her neighbors “as a bunch of worthless, idiot rednecks.” For over forty years, I have made my home among rural, working-class people, and I have written for almost that long, sometimes in the pages of this magazine, about their economic oppression. Thorp cannot be faulted if she doesn’t know my work, but I do wish that in reading this one essay (and especially where it speaks of workers and their work) she had taken some of her own good counsel and heard what I was actually saying as opposed to a “stupid stereotype” of what I must have said.