To think about the news (3): Ask, who benefits, who doesn’t?

This is my third question about the unfolding Mueller report controversy. First I asked of the initial flurry if it was news, that is, information we can use. I focused on the alternatives of conjecture, supposition, and assumptions that were taking the place of thinking, or creating knowledge. A point of view reflects our knowledge, our beliefs, and what we believe to be true. Understanding point of view always takes some digging into the individual or group background where those beliefs were formed. We have done this excavation for recent controversies. Think back to the hearings on the Kavanaugh appointment to the Supreme Court where the context of private schools, boys will be boys culture, law school mentors, and support of the candidate by the conservative Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society were all explored.

What we really learned about the individual through these explorations may be debatable, but the process – which doesn’t need to be carried out with such antipathy in every case – is the important thing here. To find out what influences the knowledge claimed and the point of view it shapes takes some thought, and some time. That is why an ‘always on’ media (primarily cable and internet sites that need to be capturing your attention) are generally not good sources of noteworthy information, of knowledge.

There is a third question that relies on understanding both how and where we acquire knowledge and develop our point of view, and it can be a bit of a shortcut to figuring things out. It is the question: who benefits, who doesn’t? This is a kind of assessment, or analysis, of who wins and who loses. As I teach this framework to students this third lens focuses on the stories of those typically disenfranchised – women, people of color, the poor. In the academic curriculum this is the territory of critical social science where problems are considered from the point of view of those injured, or oppressed. While it may seem a stretch to apply this question to the more opaque problem of our social and political divisions, I think it can work.

So, who benefits from Attorney General Barr’s interpretation? The administration, the individuals considered in the investigation, and one side of the political divide benefit. They maintain, as Barr did, that the whole investigation was “misconceived” though often with more colorful language. The other side of the controversy, as commentators pictured it those in the other corner, have not enjoyed much benefit, yet. I restrict the benefit to knowledge here, as I cannot begin to estimate political advantage or disadvantage in our current chaotic environment. This drama will play out on the media stage over the next several months.

However, I submit that the primary dis-benefit, or harm, of this point of view contest is to our democracy. We seem to have no way to consider, compromise, and collaborate and this is a problem for a democracy that depends on a stable core of shared values. We need to make who benefits and who doesn’t a central question when people take sides and claim they have the truth. The framework I have been exploring offers three lenses:

  • questions about knowledge – What do you know?
  • questions about context – Where did you learn what you know?
  • questions about the impact of your knowledge – Who benefits and who doesn’t from your perspective?

Much about what is news with regard to this issue has been in plain sight all along. A family with financial interests/ties to Russia; a President who makes unusually friendly comments about the Russian dictator; a campaign manager and others with ties to oligarchs in what we used to call the Soviet Union; the firing of the FBI director; and, now, of course the hiring of William Barr. If there is nothing untoward about these activities, hen it is reasonable to ask why the constant critique of the investigation, the FBI and the media. I cannot answer this question and no one else can at this point. And, that is the point.

As much as possible a democracy needs transparency. I know there has never been complete transparency in any administration whatever the political party, but it does seem that we have less than ever. Without transparency we cannot begin to have the conversation that I described previously where people are actually engaged in learning about other people’s ideas. Thus, the party being harmed by the denial of noteworthy information is all of us, ‘we the people.’ The framework I have offered with these three questions is only a tool, but it may help us take the time necessary to understand what is news and what isn’t and what is happening and why.

JoAnn McAllister

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