I’ve been chatting with Stanley Flink lately about media literacy, algorithms, and disinformation. He’s a journalist, writer, teacher, and the founding director of Yale Office of Public Information. He’s written several books on the media. His most recent is, “ He has been writing the Class Notes for his class for the Yale alumni publication for about 60 years now. He shared his latest Class Notes column with us, which you can read below. – Erin McNeill
The Vanishing Rule of Law
By Stanley E. Flink
By the time you read these words, I will have celebrated my 98th birthday. The occasion will not be entirely joyous because of the dark shadows of anxiety we are all feeling about the Ukraine war and its consequences.
Much is being said these days about the erosion of democracy. What is happening to our institutions and the traditional common ground of shared values has at last aroused concern, and possible action, among a segment of the American population.
Education is, of course, an essential requirement, but the need for what is called “media literacy” remains particularly urgent. The aspiration is awareness and understanding of how digital information has changed our way of life. Education takes time if we want our younger citizens to learn in the classrooms of America how to examine social media critically. We may not have time enough before the damage becomes irreparable. Polarization has been so deeply embedded in our society that people with different political views are unable to talk to each other, let alone maintain democratic principles.
Journalist Stanley E. Flink
The tone of modern American politics (or should we say digital politics) has been degraded in the last decade. Falsehoods, extremism, and resentment are making democracy an enfeebled relic of what was once a widely admired constitutional republic called the “American experiment.” Frightened, desperate people looked to the United States as a beacon of freedom and justice. That light burns far less brightly these days. The question so frequently heard today asks what is going on and can something be done about it.
Democracy as an idea has always been inclusive. The liberty it promises is for everybody, not just partisan groups. The rule of law has for well over 200 years managed to protect us from tribalism and exclusiveness. It demands facts and evidence before making decisions. However, contradicting long-standing tradition, laws that make voting more difficult have been passed in numerous states—along with gerrymandering. And the Supreme Court has been politicized. Never before has the fragility of democracy made it so vulnerable.
The environment of social media has provided the dark side of American life with the opportunity to diminish liberty and justice, using falsity, propaganda, and carefully constructed algorithms online. It has made both truth and trust irrelevant. In their place “alternate facts” and “preferred reality” dominate partisan disagreement. It is difficult to imagine any remedy for this dilemma other than education—including, very importantly, media literacy.
There is clearly a large number of people in this country who really do not want democracy—not if it includes all American citizens regardless of color, culture, or competence. The influence of demagogues, who have adopted anti-immigration rhetoric, racism, and disenfranchisement, may triumph in coming elections and threaten the rule of law, democracy itself, and the American dream.
I have never before been afraid for our country and for a society that believes in liberty and justice for all. Like many of you, I served in World War II. From those days until these times I have believed the rule of law would keep us from falling apart. Now I am deeply worried that our system of laws will be overthrown. What is in the public interest does not always interest the public. I hope my pessimism is proven wrong.