How do we stop a slide into autocracy? By always remembering that facts matter | Ray E. Landis

June 27, 2021 6:30 am

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 06: Protesters enter the U.S. Capitol Building on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Congress held a joint session today to ratify President-elect Joe Biden’s 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump. A group of Republican senators said they would reject the Electoral College votes of several states unless Congress appointed a commission to audit the election results. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Amy Poehler has developed a new career as a spokesperson for Comcast and we see her on numerous commercials for a wide range of products. One particular television advertisement in which she stars, however, says more about the state of the country than it says about any technology service.

The commercial begins with a family surfing the internet on their various devices. Amy mentions the need for on-line security with so many people attempting to steal personal information.

The scene shifts slightly to show the family’s snooping neighbor listening through the thin walls. After exchanging pleasantries with the neighbor, Amy points out how many people might be observing your computer activity through malware. The nosy neighbor interrupts to say that it is “mall-ware.” Amy confirms is it malware and points out you can look it up. The commercial ends with the neighbor sputtering “agree to disagree!”

First, malware (and it is malware) is a dangerous problem for everyone using a computer and is an example of the scams and frauds so prevalent in technology today.

As concerning as this type of fraud is, however, the most disturbing aspect of this advertisement may be the attitude of the creepy neighbor.

It is perfectly acceptable for someone to not know something, and this portrayal shows her lack of knowledge about malware. But when presented with evidence her understanding of how to pronounce this harmful computer activity is incorrect, this character does not admit her mistake. Instead, she snarkily asserts that facts do not matter, and she will go on believing what she wants to believe.

Does the attitude of this character remind you of anyone who was in the public eye quite a bit over the past few years? The problem we face in our country is not that ex-President Donald Trump’s personality is so similar to the stubborn fool in a television commercial, however. The true concern is many people, both in and out of positions of influence and power, share the attitude that facts and truth are whatever an individual decides they should be.

The ever-developing narrative among some on the far-right about the events of January 6 at the United States Capitol is an example.

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Scenes of rioters smashing windows and using barricades as weapons are being ignored by those who now try to claim this “incident” was simply citizens exercising their Constitutional right to protest. Arizona Representative Paul Gosar has gone so far as to accuse the Capitol Police of “assassinating” one protestor who was violently attempting to break into the House Chamber.

Accusations of lying come fast and furious in the political world. A quick trip through Twitter shows former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley accusing the left of lying about the reasons for the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and both sides in the debate about legislation to change voting procedures maintaining their opponents are lying about aspects of the bills.

Many of these accusations are really differences of opinion about policy. Opponents of requirements to show ID at the polls say this will decrease voter turnout, while proponents say it will prevent fraud. Implying either statement is a lie is not accurate. The actual debate is whether a miniscule increase in fraud prevention is sufficient reason to deny individuals without an ID the opportunity to vote.

While we should hold our leaders to higher standards, distortions of the impact of policy changes or parsing words in a press statement have become time-honored American political traditions. But agreeing to disagree about factual information goes far beyond simply seeking to gain an advantage in an issue debate.

Autocratic governments use lies and propaganda to brainwash their citizens and perpetuate their rule.

Just last week we have seen Vladimir Putin laugh off accusations of being a killer and shamelessly lie about Russian involvement in cyber-warfare.

There is a growing bent in American politics that has echoes of the strongman rule of Francisco Franco in Spain in the mid-20th century or some of the South American dictators of the 1970s and 1980s. Facts do not matter to this group, which relies on the Fox News model of convincing people the opinions of commentators are unbiased news.

Unfortunately, too many ordinary Americans have fallen victim to this type of propaganda. The neighbor in the Comcast commercial may seem like a harmless, ill-informed busybody. But in an age of information when facts and truth are more widely available than ever before, the attitude of “agree to disagree” on matters far more important than the pronunciation of a word is growing more prevalent – and more dangerous.

Opinion contributor Ray E. Landis writes about the issues important to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @RELandis.

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Ray Landis
Ray Landis

A former spokesman for the Pennsylvania AARP, Ray E. Landis writes about the issues that matter to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star's Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @RELandis.