Last week, Sarah Palin botched a retelling of the story of Paul Revere. This isn’t news. But the fact that it happened, and that Palin is still seriously considered a favorite to win the 2012 GOP presidential nomination (if she runs), perfectly frames our modern disregard for facts.
But don’t worry; this isn’t a political post. This is a post about you. (Read on.)
Once upon a time, arguing that a working knowledge of American history should be a prerequisite for holding the office the US presidency would have been a given. Now, that opinion seems at best quaint, and at worst elitist. After all, how many of us could accurately recall Revere’s story? How many of us know what’s in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights? Hell, how many of us can name a current Supreme Court justice? (Answer: less than half of us.)
Let’s not be hypocritical and insist that Sarah Palin is any less qualified to run the country than Barack Obama is, or than we ourselves are. Because we now live in an era where facts and knowledge no longer matter, since no one believes in facts.
The Bold New Era of Making It Up as We Go
A big reason no one believes in facts anymore is because no one trusts the gatekeepers of knowledge.
Finance expert (and ultra-personal blogger) James Altucher has famously declared that sending your kids to college is a bad idea, a stance that’s recently been bolstered by uber-capitalist (and anti-democracy champion) Peter Thiel‘s offer to pay aspiring entrepreneurs not to go to college.
When people who make their living by earning money off other people are insisting that those same people stop going to college, you can read that one of two ways: cynically (i.e., “They want to keep the masses dumb and pliable”) or proactively (i.e., “Modern education is so useless that the very people who should benefit from it are the ones most desperate to find alternatives to it”).
Granted, even higher education itself now admits that, by and large, higher education is a rip-off.
So, when all sides of an argument agree that the educational system is flawed, it’s understandable that faith in education would drop.
This is why Palin can botch American history and still be the darling of the average American voter: because we’d botch American history too. Whether or not we want to admit it, we’re all more like Palin than we’re like Obama, because to be like Palin, you don’t have to try.
When Populism Replaces Facts
Global warming is either mankind’s greatest threat or a complete cesspool of partisan nonsense. And since we’re no longer a population that has the patience for an in-between, we must make stark decisions quickly: something is either true or it’s false. We don’t have time for grey areas and a “bigger picture.”
Fortunately, regardless of what you’d like to believe about global warming, you can find experts who will agree with you. Therefore, you don’t actually have to think; you just have to quote your chosen expert. And if you’d prefer not to believe the other side’s expert, that’s okay; they don’t believe yours either.
Film critics have trashed The Hangover 2 for being an exact replica of The Hangover, and yet The Hangover 2 is making ludicrous amounts of money. Does that mean The Hangover 2 is actually a good movie? No; it means people don’t care whether a movie is good or bad. They just want something familiar.
Thus, critics and experts in all fields have outlived their usefulness, having finally been rendered obsolete by online advertising, distribution and word of mouth.
Why care about facts when you can have your own presumptions validated instead?
Why care about quality when you can always find more of what you like?
Why believe anyone else when you can decide what your own reality is?
He Who Has the Loudest Megaphone Wins
Last week, I said defending your reputation is a waste of time. This is still true. Even if you’re laughably ignorant or a blatant liar, someone else will still agree with / defend / idolize you. Every time.
Last week, I also said your Klout score (and other forms of “influence measurement”) doesn’t matter. This is still mostly true. But, in the wake of Palin v. Revere, I’d like to add a caveat:
How influential you are is still unimportant, but that you are influential at all is extremely important.
Right now, we’re all experts.
Go ahead, say you are one. Because it’s true.
You don’t need a degree to claim expertise anymore, because we’ve just proven that degrees are overrated and misguided.
You don’t need work experience to claim expertise anymore, because we’ve just proven that all experience is irrelevant when compared to the public’s opinion of that experience.
So, whether you’re a scientist, an artist, a politician, a businessperson or a social marketing consultant, you are an expert simply by existing. And anyone who says you aren’t is wrong, because someone else will agree that you are.
Now: here’s the part where your influence matters.
Have you read The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey? If not, here’s a summary: Dave Ramsey is a self-created financial guru who packs his extremist’s guide to financial independence with a steady dose of tough love and Christian beliefs. Whether or not you agree with Ramsey, his methods or his religion, he makes at least one salient point:
These days, we tend to view money as an evil all by itself, due mostly to the fact that the people who tend to possess it also tend to misuse it. That’s because the vast majority of us don’t have a lot of money, and we resent the way those who do have money are spending it on things that lower the quality of our own lives while elevating theirs.
Thus, Ramsey’s motivation for helping more people make more money is this: if you believe you’re a good person, you owe it to yourself and everyone else to make as much money as possible so you can do good things with it while simultaneously keeping more money from flowing to the people who would misuse it.
Now, replace “money” with “influence” and reread that last section.
And then, just for the hell of it, go read Paul Revere’s Wikipedia page.
It might come in handy someday.