Trapped in the Bubble
Suzanne Fields  | December 29, 2017

When summing up the year now fading, the catchall phrases that generalize a common view don't work. It was neither the best of times nor the worst of times. In our fragmented politics, the center does not hold, and moving out to the edges of the frame doesn't hold us together.

There's lots of e pluribus and not much unum.

In her new book, "Braving the Wilderness," togetherness guru Brene Brown accurately describes paradoxes that afflict what she calls "common enemy intimacy." We hold on to ideological bunkers with echo chambers in which we can share a common bias flavored with rage. There are few common goals for the public good. The guru's insight strikes me as the obvious truth of our times, sad as it is. Unifiers on either side of the partisan divide often prefer to point with righteous fingers at the other side rather than link hands to reach a righteous consensus.

We can see that in Congress, where the Affordable Care Act, i.e. Obamacare, was adopted by a Democratic Congress without a single Republican vote in the House or the Senate, and President Donald Trump's Tax Cut and Jobs Act, i.e. the Republican tax-reform legislation, was adopted by a Republican Congress without a single Democratic vote.

The president plays to his base, using technology to leap over the institutional media. And the Democrats play to their base, leaving the rest of us to parse the truth from millions of tweets, active and reactive, a fragmented picture of where we are, if not who we are. No warm fireside chats unite us, but a lot of angry tweets and nonstop punditry divide us.

"Saturday Night Live" parodies Trump accentuating his yellow hair, but it's hard to catch the essence of the man in a satirical skit. He doesn't give us enough time between tweets to take him as seriously as we should. He requires a portrait by Picasso or a cubist rendering, with features flying off in several directions to capture his unique style. The same is true of the culture. We crave unity, but we unite only in our bubbles, where never is heard a discouraging word. Only the brave step out of their bubble to take an X-ray of the body politic.

Pinocchio, the puppet with a telltale nose, has been brought back to the culture, but instead of putting old woodenhead in an instructive tale for children about the peril of telling lies, he's become a symbol of the politicians and press retailing partisan talking points as if they were the news. President Trump decries "fake news." White House adviser Kellyanne Conway scorns such news as "alternative facts." This approach to the facts didn't start with the Trump administration. Former President Bill Clinton, caught in lies about his sordid personal life, insisted that facts depend on "what the meaning of the word 'is' is." Hillary Clinton, faithful to the family tradition, defended her use of a private email server setup, saying it had no classified information on it when it did.

In taking stock of the events of the swiftly receding year, we should recognize how deeply we err as mere humans, abetted by the new technology that puts the passage of events on steroids. It's exciting, but it's exacerbating the thinking process on which the functioning of democracy depends.

Since today's college students make up a generation for whom the digital keyboard replaced pen and ink, it's natural that they look to their medium for the message. They should understand they'll need more than a little help. The smart ones are taking classes in media literacy, trying to avoid the latest traps in the dissemination of information. With no Socrates to question assumptions, a team of four college students earlier this month created an internet browser plug-in called Open Mind to question the validity of sources.

The winning software was developed during a 36-hour competition at Yale University aptly called a "hackathon." The software whiz kids devised a warning to pop up on a user's screen when entering a site known for spreading fake news. Designed for Google Chrome, the extension suggests where to go on social media for alternate points of view.

This might offend traditionalists who revere Guttenberg and relish a variety of print sources from their own reading, but to many young adults of the iGeneration, Open Mind sounds like a reasonable start for someone willing to flee his bubble. The winning team's prize is an audience with members of Congress. Second prize should be an audience at the White House. The rest of us should pay close attention to their progress in the new year, if any. We can all use a little help.

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