Since his election, President Trump has repeated “Make America Great Again” and “Fake News” in nearly every speech and press conference he has been in. We asked Harvard Professor and the author of “Enlightenment Now”, Steven Pinker about his thoughts on the meaning and significance behind two of president’s favorite phrases.
Steven Pinker: In my view, the slogan “Make America Great Again” is not a recipe for a continuing progress. For one thing, it looks backward — backward to some “Golden Age” and it’s been said the main explanation for a Golden Age is a “bad memory.” In past decades, the United States was mired down in multiple wars. We had double-digit inflation and double-digit unemployment. The elderly were — large numbers of them were destitute. Millions of people had no health insurance. It was no picnic in the old days, despite the problems we now have.
Also, what’s going to make us better off is not kind of zero-sum sportslike competition between nations. The problems facing us, many of them are global like rogue nuclear states, like climate change and other forms of environmental threats, like terrorists, like maximizing global welfare and prosperity and none of these are going to be solved if we think of the international arena as one of each nation’s striving for its individual greatness. You can be a proud American, or Frenchmen, or German, and a citizen of the world at the same time. And so many of the problems facing us are going to require international cooperation.
We lived through a period in which, nation-states have competed against each other for glory and preeminence and the results were not pretty, they include a couple of World Wars. Since 1945, when we had institutions of global cooperation, the rate of death and war has gone down, prosperity has gone up, and it’s that kind of trend that I think we ought to continue to foster to continue the progress that we’ve made.
“Fake News” is a real phenomenon. There are sleazy predators who cook up completely apocryphal news stories and try to get them circulated on social media and on the internet. But it’s a terrible pollution of the language for the president to call any article that criticizes him “fake news.” If you compare the credibility of the president’s statement with those of the mainstream media, there’s just no comparison. The president’s been called out on lie after lie after lie. And as someone who’s often written for the so-called “mainstream media,” for all their flaws, they got fact-checkers. They won’t let me just write anything that comes into my head, I’ve got to prove it. So that’s the kind of standard that has established the credibility of many of the news media.
And the basis of democracy is that everyone can be criticized, particularly the leaders. We don’t have a monarch, a Supreme Leader, or a dictator for life. We’ve got a person who is temporarily in charge of the government and when he makes an error, it is mandatory for the free press to call it out. To try to delegitimize the press whenever it criticizes the president, it’s really the reflex of an autocrat, of a tin-pot dictator in some banana republic and not worthy of a democracy like the United States where the president serves in our pleasure and can be criticized just like anyone else.
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