Here on Vashon, we have an astounding group of citizens who are involved in all manner of activist and nonprofit causes founded with the altruistic intentions of improving our world.
One of those non-profits is AlTo (Alliance for Tompotika Conservation), an environmental conservancy that partners with local communities to save endangered species and reduce the destruction of rain forests and coral reefs, among many other efforts. AlTo was created by my friend Marcy Summers who recently introduced me to a term that was new to me: shifting baseline.
A baseline is a point in time from which we can measure changes. To give some color to this concept, Marcy gave the example of how Vashon’s annual Christmas Bird Count tracks the population of different species of birds against the established baselines of the past. Shifting baselines is what happens when — often without our even realizing it — our sense of what’s “normal” changes and we simply accept the change as if things have always been that way.
If, for example, there were 900 mergansers on and around Vashon 10 years ago, that is a baseline; this year there may be only 300, so clearly, the population is dwindling.
Hearing Marcy describe a shifting baseline made me remember a story that my friend Art Anderson told me back in the early ’90s. At the time, Art was about 92 and had lived in Dockton all his life. He told me that, when he was a kid, his mom would tell him at around 5 o’clock to go down to the harbor and catch a fish for dinner. So he’d grab his rod and run down to the beach and come back a few minutes later with a salmon. Using this example, the baseline of the salmon population in the early 1900s was that a child could reliably catch a fish in a matter of minutes.
Today, any fisherman on Vashon knows that it’s unheard of to catch a fish that quickly. So, in this case, we can surmise that the baseline has shifted to a far lower salmon population in the Sound.
The same type of shifting baseline can be found in almost any discipline. But given the political atmosphere in the 21st century — and especially in these past few years — one of the baselines that I’ve been looking at is that of mendacity, of how much disinformation is being spread, how frequently and what effect its been having on our society.
Clearly, our politicians have not told us the whole truth for, well, forever. But the baseline of political untruths has shifted pretty dramatically recently. Maybe some lies were well-intentioned, like John F. Kennedy not telling us the whole truth about how close we may have come to a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. No harm done?
But when Nixon lied about his involvement in the Watergate break-in, or when George W. Bush lied about finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify the attack and subsequent war?
I’ve read estimates on how many exaggerations, distortions or outright lies our former president told us during his occupation of the White House; the consensus is well over 30,000. By any metric, this can be construed as a huge shift in the baseline of political mendacity.
I have three questions: How did this happen, what consequences does it have on our democracy and how can we reverse it? It seems to me that the shift in this baseline illustrates a severe dysfunction in an otherwise sound democratic political system. If this baseline were to continue to shift in the same direction and at the same rate, in the near future, none of us would know the truth and would therefore not know what we were voting for or even if our vote counted. This would essentially undermine and bring an end to democracy as we have known it.
I recently wrote about the Fairness Doctrine, about how from 1949 to 1987 media outlets that held an FCC broadcast license were required to offer only honest and balanced news coverage. After this doctrine was rescinded, it was open season on the truth. Americans were bombarded with disinformation that helped them to form political opinions, entrench them in extreme ideologies and shape the ways they view society. And many of these opinions were based on untruths promulgated by the media and politicians with an agenda that might not otherwise have been supported by the electorate.
Once again, it is up to us to keep our leaders honest, to insist that they tell us the truth. We need to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine and force the media and our leaders to tell us the truth. We can exercise that power by contacting our representatives in Congress and, of course, by voting. And the time is now.
Scott Durkee is a freelance factotum, artist and winemaker. He lives on Maury Island.