Here’s a vignette from this morning that highlights the challenging disconnect in “understanding basic facts” which we face today in our society and culture.

I went into the VA clinic this morning for a lab blood draw, for my annual check up. I struck up a conversation with the lab technician, and we talked about masks and schools. She commented that she would not ever make her own kids wear masks, she “just would not subject them to that,” and I responded that I knew kids could transmit COVID just as adults can. Since I teach kids that are less than 12 years old and can’t be vaccinated, I’m expecting we may be in masks again this year in school. (Of course that would be possible because we teach at a private school, Oklahoma is one of 8 states which has forbidden public schools from having mask mandates in 2021-22 for students.)

The VA lab technician told me that in 2009 more Americans died of swine flu than have died of COVID, “The government just didn’t call it a pandemic so we didn’t hear about it as much.” I was / am sure that is not true, and I asked her where she had read that, and she said “from news sources that are not network news, unless it’s severe weather I don’t read, listen to or watch any network news sources.” So she could not cite where she had read this, it was just “not mainstream news.” (This response is equivalent, by the way, to saying, “I read it on Google or Facebook.”)

After I left the VA clinic feeling  dismayed, I asked the Google Assistant (via my iPhone) to tell me how many deaths happened in the United States because of swine flu in 2009. The answer from the CDC is about 12,500, a far cry from the 600,000 deaths now documented in the US from COVID in the past two years.

We have always had political disagreements in the United States, and always will, but I think this disconnect and gap in our perception of “basic facts” is worse than ever because of our polluted media landscape and especially disinformation producers. In maintaining her belief that more people died of swine flu in 2009 than died of COVID in 2020-21, this VA lab technician is demonstrating a willful rejection of reality equivalent to that of holocaust deniers.

I struggle to have the words to adequately describe this. It is so depressing.

Education is the light, and we need to strive to help students become independent, critical thinkers. Media literacy education has an extremely important role to play in this process and in these conversations. Unfortunately these problems are widespread today in th USA, and the darkness is so deep in many places… like right here in Oklahoma City.

When citizens disagree about their perception of basic facts in the world, representative democracy faces serious challenges. I won’t say “this is an existential threat,” but I’m tempted to. When I say “existential” I mean, something that threatens the existence of representative democracy.

We all need to do what we can to try and strengthen the foundations of our democracy. A “classical liberal education,” in which students and teachers are invited to consider and question a multiplicity of ideas and philosophies, is more important than ever. Political indoctrination via mainstream as well as social media, distrust of institutions and authorities, rejection of government and mainstream media sources, and a proclivity to believe conspiracy theories which are common today pose challenges we all need to confront together.

I have collected many of the resources I use, recommend, have created, and share about media literacy on:

Working to better understand the dynamics I’ve described here is part of my ongoing project with my colleague Brian Turnbaugh, “Conspiracies and Culture Wars.”

These challenges are complex and deep-seated, and will NOT be “resolved” anytime soon.

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On this day..

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