Russian propaganda and the murk

Was reading this NYT Op-Ed on how Trump/Guiliani are basically copying the Russian propaganda playbook when I realized, sadly, how well it’s working.

I talked to my Teaching assistants on Monday to ask them how discussions of Trump/Ukraine, etc., had gone on Friday and wondered if anybody had actually defended Trump.  No, apparently, but quite a few of them had determined things were just too “murky” to really know what’s going on.  Essentially heard the same thing from Republican Will Hurd on 60 Minutes last night.

Interesting… so onto the Op-Ed:

The message of much of Kremlin propaganda is not to showcase Russia as a beacon of progress, but to prove that Western politics is just as rotten as President Vladimir Putin’s. We may have corruption, the argument goes, but so does the West; our democracy is rigged, but so is theirs.

The latest scandal surrounding President Trump and his dealings with Ukraine is, for this reason, a godsend for the Kremlin: The son of an American presidential candidate is suspected of using his father’s reputation to get himself a $50,000-a-month job at a Ukrainian gas company; the president of the United States is accused of acting like a geopolitical gangster, extorting kompromat about a political rival. American politics have become enmeshed in Russian and Ukrainian corruption, and much about the Trump administration seems pulled from the playbook of a post-Soviet kleptocracy. The Kremlin couldn’t have put together a better script.

As I follow the news coming from America at my home in Britain, the political culture and language in the thing once known as “the West” reminds me of my years in Moscow, where I lived in the first decade of the 21st century. Perhaps in nothing more so than in its relationship to the truth.

The media manipulation of the early Putin years didn’t try to convince you of a fabricated version of “truth.” Instead, it worked by seeding doubt and confusion, evoking a world so full of endlessly intricate conspiracies that you, the little guy, had no chance to work out or change. Instead of conspiracy theories being used to merely buttress an ideology as under Communist rule, a conspiratorial worldview replaced ideology as a way to explain the world, encouraging the public to trust nothing and yearn for a strong leader to guide it through the murk — a tactic that’s as common in Washington these days as in Moscow. [emphasis mine]


Liberal “bias” in the classroom

So, I really hate the way so many people mis-use the word “bias.”  I am a political science professor with liberal positions on most policy issues in America.  That is hardly a liberal “bias.”  Now, if I choose to try and get my students to adopt my particular views and cherrypick information in ways to make that happen, now that’s liberal bias.  Alas, many people erroneous equate the former with the latter.  My take has always been that I should just be honest about my liberal views, so that students are aware don’t take something as supposedly studiously neutral when it’s not.

Thus, I loved this recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education which almost perfectly captures how I have long thought about the issue of ideology in the political science classroom:

Research I’ve done on K-12 teachers has shown that political disclosure, when done conscientiously, benefits students. The need is even greater in college settings, given the suspicion among many conservatives that the true aim of higher education is to subversively create legions of liberal voters.

We first must dispense with the myth of the politically neutral classroom. All educational spaces are political. Even if instructors do not disclose their ideological stances, their beliefs can be found in the structure of their syllabi, the readings they assign, the students they call on during class discussions, and the nonverbal expressions they — often unknowingly — make. Intent here is immaterial; by merely engaging in the act of teaching, one is sending political messages to students. [emphases mine]

Context matters, of course. It would probably not be appropriate to offer one’s opinion on a border wall, for example, during a mathematics lecture. However, most courses in the humanities and social sciences, and even some in the hard sciences, offered on university campuses touch on contemporary political issues in some form or another, unless we strain to avoid any consideration of their social relevance.

The key for instructors is to make their classes political and not partisan, as the researchers Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy advocated for in their book, The Political Classroom. Disclosure aids that goal if instructors take what Thomas Kelly, an education professor at John Carroll University, called a “committed impartiality” approach to their instruction. This means that educators should disclose their political opinions but in a way that allows competing, rational beliefs to receive a fair hearing.

In short, educators should say, “Here is my opinion on this issue, but it does not mean I am right; I am interested in hearing what you have to say about it.” Professors must make it clear to their students that there will be no negative consequences for anyone holding a differing viewpoint…

The question then becomes whether the students picked up on the instructors’ ideological positions. Some politically astute students occasionally do, but too often students interpret political opinions expressed by their instructors as facts. Disclosure allows students to process instructors’ opinions as just that. If instructors masquerade opinions as fact, charges of indoctrination have greater merit.

Disclosure with committed impartiality also provides students with a model for how to engage in tolerant civic discourse. Today’s undergraduates have come of age in an era defined by extreme partisanship, in which the tenor of political dialogue is set by competing cable-news networks and social media. Moreover, we may have reached a point where expecting respectful disagreement from politicians themselves is wishful thinking. Modeling how to acknowledge and respect opposing viewpoints while defending one’s own opinion is a civic skill that needs to be incorporated into all college courses…

Some instructors may still worry that disclosing their political opinions will earn them negative course evaluations. My research has shown, however, that students prefer to know where their instructors stand politically, provided they do not feel pressured to conform to those beliefs. If instructors take a committed impartiality approach, they should not fear disclosure; rather, they should happily embrace it.

Wow, I loved that.  I had never seen the phrase “committed impartiality” but I love that and it is definitely what I strive to do, even if I don’t get all the way there.  It certainly is a challenge at times, especially with the current president.  I don’t object to Donald Trump trampling the rule of law because I’m liberal, but because the rule of law far transcends liberal/conservative politics.  But it’s hard to make all students understand that.  I don’t object to imprisoning children at our border because I disagree with Trump’s immigration policies (I do), but because this is a moral abomination that (should) transcend partisan politics.  But for some, anything negative about Donald Trump is obvious liberal bias.

I also very much worry that it is not that my students are afraid of me giving them a fair hearing (it’s really not that hard), but, rather, that their fellow students will (i.e., an assumption that any open Trump supporter is a misogynist, xenophobic, racist).  I’m quite convinced that this fact, more than anything, has truncated the range of discussion in the Trump era and I’m still struggling to find the best approach for that.

Anyway, I do love this formulation, and now that I have it, I can make it even more of a conscious goal to have committed impartiality in my classrooms.

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