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Is this the Year Democracy Dies in the Dark?

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Is this the Year Democracy Dies in the Dark?

Commentary by Pete Haug | FāVS News

In the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks one of my favorite one-liners: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Baha’u’llah reinforces Christ’s words, linking truth to light: “Peace be upon him whom the light of truth guideth unto all truth, and who, in the name of God, standeth in the path of His Cause, upon the shore of true understanding.”

Truth is the foundation of positive human interactions. Such interactions require a liberation provided by true understanding. Understanding liberates us in ways too numerous to imagine.

Seven years ago, the Washington Post’s “Democracy dies in darkness” became the paper’s first official slogan in its 140-year history. While not infallible, the Post tries to penetrate darkness with the light of accuracy.

That slogan resonates in our democratic republic. Our system of governance has served as a model for nations the world over aspiring to enfranchise voting populations. All attempts, including ours, have been flawed, yet hope and vision persist.

The Fourth Estate

European society had its traditional “three estates of the realm”: clergy, nobility and commoners. Edmund Burke is credited with identifying the “fourth estate” in 1771 during a debate about opening House of Commons proceedings to the press.

The Post’s slogan reinforces the ideal of a democracy’s potential. Modern democracies are not limited to simple equivalents of European “estates.” Today’s open societies, with executive, legislative and judicial branches of governance, now enjoy a fourth branch: the press.

Long before Burke’s comments, America’s first newspaper was published in 1690 Boston. Colonial officials suppressed it immediately. After one edition, all known copies were destroyed, and publisher Benjamin Harris was arrested.

A century later, following many skirmishes between publishers and British overlords, our fledgling country amended its new Constitution with a Bill of Rights, stating: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …” Despite this amendment, press censorship has surged and ebbed for more than two centuries, mirroring tides of shifting American public opinion.

Electronic media

My childhood media were a vacuum-tube radio and a rotary-dial telephone. Later, I learned about world events from television’s Walter Cronkite, “the most trusted man in America.” Them days is gone forever!

Today’s threats to press freedoms are more complicated and insidious. With personal electronics, each of us can become a “journalist,” no experience necessary. No standards or constraints validate our credibility. Only followers of social media matter, with social influence measured in “clicks.” How many “clicks” did Washington, Lincoln or FDR receive? How about Moses, Christ or Muhammad?

Where do you get your news?

Ask yourself: “How reliable are my news sources, and how can I know?” Do we understand our own biases well enough to set them aside, to choose sources wisely? How can we evaluate information objectively, especially when we don’t want to? Recognizing and controlling our preconceptions are essential for clear thinking. Decisions like voting require clear thinking.

The new news.

 Artificial intelligence now aids social media to generate disinformation, misinformation and sometimes truth. The challenge is knowing how to distinguish among them. A firehose of information threatens all levels of governance. Totalitarian regimes dictate how and what to think. The free world’s access to media comes with responsibility. In 1997, China’s “Great Firewall” was already blocking internet access to Western media.

Our freedoms to read, view and digest information allow us to choose, to evaluate media thoughtfully, to draw our own conclusions. But do we? Emotions often hamper our ability to think and question.

How badly do we want a story to be true — or not? Whom do we want to “win”? Whom can we believe? Answering these questions honestly reveals things about ourselves we may not want to admit. But unearthing them lets us evaluate factual information and draw conclusions from it. Understanding and facing our own biases is essential.

Pandora’s Box updated

Despite potential for good, social media are a modern Pandora’s Box. If we unquestioningly accept as true what we read, hear and view, we allow media to shape our lives: what we buy, think or believe. Traditional advertising has done this for centuries, but not to this extent. We’re now pawns of electronic manipulators with agendas we don’t begin to perceive. Questioning incoming information is essential.

War’s first casualty

Our elections are war. We lack unified leadership. We seem purposeless in the face of national and international crises. The first casualty of war is truth. Will 2024 be the year our democracy died in the twilight of disinformation?

We face tough electoral choices. We must decide what direction our nation will take. Will the light of truth guide us to all truth, or will democracy flounder and die in darkness? However the election turns, our “we the people” in our democracy will have the government we deserve.


The views expressed in this opinion column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FāVS News. FāVS News values diverse perspectives and thoughtful analysis on matters of faith and spirituality.

Pete Haug
Pete Haug
Pete plunged into journalism fresh out of college, putting his English literature degree to use for five years. He started in industrial and academic public relations, edited a rural weekly and reported for a metropolitan daily, abandoning all for graduate school. He finished with an M.S. in wildlife biology and a Ph.D. in systems ecology. After teaching college briefly, he analyzed environmental impacts for federal, state, Native American and private agencies over a couple of decades. His last hurrah was an 11-year gig teaching English in China. After retiring in 2007, he began learning about climate change and fake news, giving talks about both. He started writing columns for the Moscow-Pullman Daily News and continues to do so. He first published for favs.news in 2020. Pete’s columns alternate weekly between FāVS and the Daily News. His live-in editor, Jolie, infinitely patient wife for 62 years, scrutinizes all columns with her watchful draconian eye. Both have been Baha’is since the 1960s. Pete’s columns on the Baha’i Faith represent his own understanding and not any official position.

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Paul Graves
Paul Graves
19 days ago

Well done, Peter! Good research, pointed advocacy, clearly written. I hope this commentary gets an even wider read than FaVS offers!

Tracy Simmons
Admin
18 days ago
Reply to  Paul Graves

Ah, but if folks share it, it will reach far Paul – even on FāVS 😉

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