By Monte F. Bourjaily
Once upon a time, an op-ed or interview by the former Director of the CIA or head of NSA (much less both of them) warning of Russian interference with America’s electoral process would have set off alarm bells and triggered defensive action. Today, it is attacked as partisan. Efforts to investigate the claim’s legitimacy compete with efforts to undermine the very institutions we entrust to discover and root out this interference. This perverse reaction to experts’ efforts to inform and solve problems is repeated in area after area from climate change, to healthcare. Why are so many citizens hostile to experts’ words? Why do they mistrust the very people and institutions who seek to inform and help?
Is it possible that, in this time of division and eroding trust, the communication platform is the problem? While experts have greater reach and visibility when speaking on CNN, MSNBC, NBC, ABC or CBS or through an op-ed in The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal, speaking there alone is suspect as partisan, elitist or “fake”. What if people with expertise took a break from speaking principally through national media outlets and went out to communities to talk directly with people in local churches, fire stations, schools and American Legion halls?
We need to protect and rebuild the credibility of our institutions, experts, media and all who seek to put the country first by reestablishing connection with Americans suspicious of a selfish, meritocratic elite. One way to demonstrate that the conversation is about those we seek to help rather than us is to leave our comfortable places and talk with people in person in their communities. How would a group in Culpeper, VA or Marion County, IA react to an honest discussion with John Brennan or Michael Hayden about Russia’s attempt to manipulate Americans via Facebook and Twitter? After overcoming skepticism by making the conversation about our nation’s security, not Donald Trump, I think people would care and listen, because these people are speaking to them in the flesh about our shared national interest. This suggestion asks speakers to sacrifice time and lost income, but we are at a critical point. If we can bring the country back together, we can do powerful things and we all will benefit.
This effort needs to be repeated by climate scientists, former FBI agents, journalists and others who have expertise, visibility and a voice. The questions and criticism need to be addressed directly and honestly in a tone that puts the listener/questioner first. These ideas are influenced by Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, Dan Rather’s What Unites Us and Studs Terkel’s many interview narratives as well the effort by the group Better Angels (https://braverangels.org). Mr. Rather’s chapters on empathy and service identify pieces missing from the national discussion. The fact that in his mid-80s Mr. Rather is still traveling the country and seeking to pull us together is a powerful model of effort in the service of America.
I am not naïve about how hard these conversations will be. They will be scary for the speakers and are likely to produce pain and anger in the audience. How many people want their beliefs challenged? How many people want to be attacked when they try to reach out and speak what they believe to be the truth? How humbling to forgo national visibility in favor of slogging a speaking circuit. Will people welcome the ideas or reject them? Will the speaker be able to check his/her ego, listen to criticism and respond in a way that addresses individual audience member’s concerns?
The bigger question is how to carry this out logistically. Is this a project for Better Angels? Would an organization like the Aspen Institute be willing to modify its mission of assembling speakers in central locations to take on mission of local engagement? Might a philanthropist or entrepreneur like Steve Case, Nick Hanauer, Mark Cuban or Michael Bloomberg be willing to underwrite the effort?
This is an apolitical campaign to rebuild Americans’ trust in each other. The trust gap is with experts whose knowledge has been politicized and undermined. Like in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the challenge is to return to the community, sharing understanding with the skeptics and against the efforts of the sophists. Reluctance is natural, even desired. Aristotle would argue that the highest form of service is that done for others at the expense of some part of the self. If we continue to argue from afar, we maintain a gap into which any manipulator, domestic or foreign, can drive a deep wedge. Now is the time for those of us claiming expertise to take risks with our feelings, engage in local communities, listen and seek common ground regarding our shared values to reunite our country.