In my last few posts I have given my outlook on the loss of critical thinking skills in the US and how mass media, television in particular, has contributed to this. I admit it can be enough to make you want to move to …. oh, I don’t know, say Mars perhaps. Unfortunately that won’t work for two reasons; the atmosphere is inhospitable to human life and Lyndon LaRouche wants to colonize it.  Come to think of it, the second part could make life here a lot better, seeing as LaRouchites are the ones mass-producing Obama-as-Hitler placards.

So we are left with the good old “America, love-it-or-leave-it” decision. Well, it just so happens that I love this country – or at least the ideas that make up what this country is supposed to be, so I’m sticking; and as long as I’m sticking I’m going to put forward some ideas to make things better – because screaming at my TV is starting to make my head hurt. To do this I am going to appear to digress for a minute or two, but I swear it all comes together.

In 2004 I joined Election Protection, a new nonpartisan NFP started by some recent Columbia University law grads and students, sponsored in part by People For The American Way.  The idea for Election Protection was born at a study session one night shortly after the Supreme Court handed down it’s decision in Bush Vs. Gore, stopping the Florida recount and thus giving the presidency to George W. Bush. The students were concerned by two things, the apparent unconstitutionality of the Court agreeing to hear the case in the first place** and the evidence of misinformation campaigns that had cropped up as journalists looked more closely at what had happened not just in Florida but elsewhere.  While they realized that since there was nothing they could do about the gaping flaw that had been revealed in our system of checks and balances there was a need to make sure things never got that far again.

What they came to realize is that regardless of where any plans for voter fraud, intimidation, or misinformation originated that they could only be carried out at the local level, at the polling stations and in the various local Boards of Election. In other words, keeping elections fair was a “ground game”. If you wanted to keep mischief at bay you had to be where the mischief occurred.

Thus an organizing concept was born. By partnering with local chapters of national organizations, grassroots organizations, and local union chapters and operating fully in the open they created an all-American equivalent of the poll monitoring we have often done for other countries. However they added two new twists, proactively countering misinformation campaigns prior to election day and creating a legal network that could act to stop fraud or rights violations on election day before the polls closed.  Volunteers would go door-to-door in neighborhoods where posters had been hung or calls made trying to make people question if they could vote (fake state ID requirements, etc.), when they could vote (even number houses on Tuesday, odds, on Wednesday, moved back one week if it rains, etc. etc.) and where they could vote (false information as to polling places and times). These volunteers were all trained on the specifics of local, county, state, and national voter rights and provided a summary flyer of the same. The drill was simple – ask the person at each residence if they knew if they were registered, how to register, when and where to vote and what if anything they needed to bring with them. Discussion of individual candidates, issues or political parties was strictly prohibited.

On election day everything switched gears. Instead of letting people know how they could vote, the job became making sure that no one stopped them from legally voting. Anywhere that Eelction Protection was present the Board of Elections was informed. They were told why we were there and what we intended to do. Specifically, we would stand the legal distance required from the polls and keep a lookout. If we saw any attempts at voter intimidation we would right up a report and call an 800 number, from which a civil rights attorney would be dispatched to the scene. If rights had been violated they would contact another lawyer, already located at the local courthouse, who would file any necessary motions.

The test run was in congressional districts in Florida and Pennsylvania in 2002, districts where suspicious and illegal behavior had been reported in 2000. The program proved to be very effective. In several locations illegal police blockades were called off. In one location Immigration Officers standing right at the polls were forced to leave. This was particularly important because in Florida after 9/11 it was not uncommon for Immigration to hassle legal residents, bringing them in for questioning for no reason, thus US citizens of foreign descent were scared. If anyone came out of the polling place without an “I voted” sticker they would be asked by EP if they had been able to vote. Where the law allowed a person to be assisted in voting they could then invite EP into the polling place, where EP would inform the poll operators of why the voter did in fact have the right to vote.  Most often this resulted in the person being allowed to place their ballot.

In 2004 the program went national and I joined. I was sent to Phoenix, AZ. In 2002 there had been several attempts to misinform voters in the poorest communities about their rights, and about where and when they could vote. This was happening again in 2004. I spent two days going door to door in an area where posters had been placed just days earlier with false information about polling places and times. I met a lot of people who intended to vote, but had the wrong information and provided them with the right one. On election day I was assigned to a polling place where there were, fortunately, no problems. In fact the Phoenix Board of Elections, which had been very skeptical of EP’s presence, was so impressed that when lines started to get long at the end of the day and there was concern that not everyone would get to vote they deputized us so we could actually go in and help run the election.  It was an amazing three days, culminating with the nightmare of going to the hotel and watching the news from Ohio. Still, I found the work very rewarding and went to Philadelphia for the 2006 midterm elections and to Ohio for the 2008 presidential election. Wherever they need me to go in 2010 and 2012, I’ll be there.

Yes, I would love it if everyone who reads this decides “Gee, I want to do that” and joins EP, but that is not my point. My point is that what we need today to counter the massive misinformation campaigns that take advantage of the lack of critical thinking to convince people that their way of life is somehow being threatened when it is not, is some sort of equivalent – an Information Protecton program. Theoretically that is what 24 hour news should be providing, but as I laid out in my last post that is no longer their mission.

How would such a program work? I would love to be able to follow that question with a manifesto for the information age, but I don’t have one (not yet, anyway). What I do have are some ideas of what such a program would have to look like to be accepted and as well as some ideas of what it should do:

  • In order for an “IP” program to be acceptable their would have to be NO question as to its nonpartisan nature. If anyone has any ideas on how to pull that off, I am all ears.
  • Any IP Program would have to make all materials it disseminated available to local government and local press for scrutiny. Printing the entire text of any handouts in the public notices section of local papers should be part of that.
  • Where a specific, documented lie is told, the documentation itself must be provided along with the refutation. For example, the now (in)famous Joe Wilson “You Lie” should be countered with a flyer that states and reprints verbatim the specific sections of each bill that specifies that neither government subsidies for health insurance nor a public option wuld be available to illegal aliens.
  • In making the case for actual statistics an IP program would have to be able to cite the source’s credentials and independence. It should also be able to show the relationships between statistics that are being used that may not be accurate and their sourcing.

In other words, an IP program needs to do the work that the mass media no longer does.  This still leaves the question of how do you get millions of people who have not been taught critical thinking and have nested within a media-driven comfort zone to listen to all of this unanswered.  I don’t have the full answer to that question, but I can think of two things that would be crucial:

  1. The most important element of success is personal contact. Information has to be disseminated in a local manner, with people going door-to-door. Enough work has to have been done in advance to make the IP system respected as nonpartisan that people from the left and the right will be willing to answer the door.
  2. The main goal CANNOT be to convince people that they are being lied to, or that they should support one position over another. The goal must be to show them that they can not always (in fact, rarely) trust information that is spoon-fed to them, and to help them see how they can find out more for themselves and reach their own conclusions. To re-use an earlier example, it is not as important to convince them that Joe Wilson was lying as it is to convince them that they should not assume he is telling the truth because Fox says he is – but rather to show them why, when the nation is caught up in an argument such as the one we are in now, it is important that they do their own research and reach their own conclusions – and then to teach them HOW.

Is this achievable? I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that any such attempt will require an enormous effort and be met with a huge amount of resistance from lobbyists and even media on all sides. It will be called an indoctrination program by those who oppose it on the right and it will be seen as interference by those on the left – especially when critical thinking might not lead to the conclusions one side or the other wants. This is profoundly true in health care, where both sides HAVE had good ideas, though you couldn’t tell that through all the noise. The end-of-life discussions that became demonized as death panels and shoved out of the bills were in fact a Republican amendment, and I have yet to hear an argument against the Republican insistence on interstate competition that makes any critical sense to me.

Obviously, the elephant in the room is our entire educational system needing an overhaul, but even if we did that today we wouldn’t really see the results for another 18 – 20 years. If we can get back to teaching critical thinking in schools and make sure that everyone can and does get a quality education then this will all be moot. Until then we need to take action now so that people will know the facts and understand when they are or are not working towards their own interests. I have tried over the last week to discuss why I think we are where we are, and spitballed a few ideas on how we might start to work our way out of it. Am I crazy to think we can? Maybe – but I look forward to the debate.  Speaking of which, anyone reading this on Facebook please click through to the blog ( and post your comments there so everyone can see them.

Coming next week – something lighthearted, I promise.

**Two books that look at this question in detail are Supreme Injustice: How the High Court Hijacked Election 2000 by Alan M. Dershowtiz, and The Betrayal of America: How the Supreme Court Undermined the Constitution and Chose Our President by Vincent Bugliosi. Dershowtiz’s book is an easier read, but also clearly partisan. Bugliosi’s book is denser, but an extremely convincing legal argument.