Why Humanities Matter

Wyoming is at an unavoidable crossroads. Due to the collapse of mineral revenues, our future will not be anything like our past. Coal mining was once part of Wyoming’s identity, but this phase of our history is quickly coming to a close. In 2020, betting on coal remaining the future of energy is like betting that horses would remain the future of transportation in 1920. Since the peak of coal production over a decade ago, annual state revenues from the shiny black rock have dropped $770 million. The state of Wyoming is expected to have a $1.5 billion budget shortfall in the next two years. Governor Gordon is ordering a 20% cut to all state agencies, which will severely impact programs for children and the elderly, veterans, education and health services.

Hence, we are not only at an economic crossroads, but at a profound cultural crossroads. What kind of state do we want Wyoming to become? What kind of Wyoming do we want for our children and grandchildren? In the coming years Wyoming will be required to reimagine itself right down to its roots, a process that will necessitate self-reflection and a clear, accurate understanding of history. It is not possible to know where you are, let alone where you are going, if you don’t know where you’ve been. This is where humanities can help.

The humanities—language, literature, theater, music, art, dance, history, philosophy—all explore and express the nature of human nature. The humanities teach us how to think critically about complex problems—how to distinguish between the anecdotal and the statistical, the myth and the reality. For example, we here in Wyoming think of ourselves as the “cowboy state,” but in truth, according to U.S. Bureau of Economic analysis, less than 3% of our workforce is employed in ranching and farming. Beef2Live.com reports that there are more cattle in Florida, and thus more cowboys, than in Wyoming. The biggest employer in the state, by far, is the state government itself—teachers, administrators, state agency workers.

The humanities help us understand each other, value diverse perspectives and promote tolerance, which stand at the center of social justice and equality. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 10% of Wyomingites live in poverty. Despite the fact that we have one of the lowest tax burdens of any state (Wyoming has the lowest beer tax in the nation), the bottom 20% of Wyoming workers pay seven times the rate of the top 1%. A 2018 report by the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy reveals that Wyoming has one of the largest tax rate discrepancies between the rich and the poor in the United States. Finding solutions to entrenched inequalities will require open-mindedness and creativity, precisely the skills that the humanities bring to problem-solving.  

The economic inequities and harsh realities that Wyoming is facing today provide a unique opportunity to explore and encourage the true wealth of this state—the intellectual, cultural, social and civic wealth that exists in every community from Bondurant to Buffalo, Sundance to Saratoga. All Wyoming communities have their own proud heritage, committed citizens and singular sense of place. There is no doubt that the people of Wyoming love this state and are willing to do what it takes to make it a better place to live.  

At this time, when democracy itself can sometimes feel imperiled, the humanities help develop informed, insightful citizens willing to engage in the civil discourse and elect solid, thoughtful leaders.  “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day,” said Thomas Jefferson.

Wyoming is at a grand societal crossroads and needs the humanities to make the right choices. There are great challenges ahead, but also great opportunities. The humanities can help us navigate this new, beautiful future.

Suffrage Continues Today

Wyoming is rightfully proud to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, in which women won the right to vote, as well as the 150thanniversary of the first woman in history to cast  a vote, an event that happened right here in Wyoming. In 1870the Wyoming Territorial Legislature passed the Suffrage Act, and on September 6, 1870, in Laramie, wearing shawl and bonnet, Louisa Swain, 69, cast the first ballot by any women in the United States in a general election.

The women’s movement began a generation earlier when Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a fierce abolitionist, boldly organized “The First Convention Ever Called to Discuss the Civil and Political Rights of Women,” in July of 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York.

As a child, Stanton had been traumatized by fire-and-brimstone preachers, but by adulthood “religious superstitions gave place to rational ideas based on scientific facts.” Stanton subsequently renounced religion, “all religions on the face of the earth degrade women, and so long as a woman accepts the position that they assign her, her emancipation is impossible.”

Stanton joined forces with Susan B. Anthony in the 1850s and together they fought shoulder-to-shoulder against misogyny and racial discrimination for the next five decades. They founded the Women’s Loyal National League in 1863, the American Equal Rights Association in 1868, and the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869. In 1872, Anthony was summarily arrested for voting in her hometown of Rochester, New York. The following year she wrote “… this oligarchy of sex, which makes men of every household sovereigns, masters; the women subjects, slaves—carrying dissension and rebellion into every home of the Nation—cannot be endured.” Alas, endure it did.

A decade earlier, in 1863, President Lincoln had ended his Gettysburg Address with … “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that a government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish.”

At that time, perhaps as many as 75% of American citizens were disenfranchised—all blacks, all Native Americans, all Chinese and Japanese Americans, and all women of any heritage. The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, gave men of all colors the right to vote, but women were left behind.

Both Stanton and Anthony died before the tide finally turned. Immigrant women, black women, working women and educated white women joined forces and demanded change. Suffrage was first won across Western states and, in 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was finally ratified.  

However, it wasn’t until the second wave of the women’s movement, in the 1960’s, with the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that the power of the female electorate began to change politics. The Voting Rights Act, in particular, finally gave black women and Native American women the opportunity to vote, curtailing (but not successfully eliminating) voter suppression tactics such as ID requirements, literacy tests and poll taxes.

And yet, 50 years later, a woman in Wyoming makes 70 cents for every dollar a man makes—Wyoming is ranked 50th in pay gender gap. Women represent only 12% of the top-paid executives in the S&P 500. Only 23% of the 535seats in Congress are held by women, and only 15% of the 90 seats in the Wyoming legislature.

The 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment is a landmark in women’s rights, but it represents not the end of the fight, but the beginning.  

“There never will be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers”—Susan B. Anthony.

Wyoming Humanities is sponsoring suffrage programs and events throughout the month.  Find more information along with suffrage resources to read, watch, listen and celebrate on our website ThinkWy.org.

Journalism, the Informed Citizen and How to Spot Fake News

“Public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.”

This is the preamble to the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. A journalist’s singular priority is to seek truth and report on it. This requires the freedom to act independently and the responsibility to be accountable and transparent.

In the past, news organizations were divided into three main parts: news, editorial and advertising. This is still the case with the most respected and prestigious print publications, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Atlantic and many others. However, with the advent of radio, then TV, then the Internet, then social media, the once clear lines between facts and opinions, actual stories and mere advertisements, have become thoroughly blurred, if not obliterated. This change has been insidious, corrosive and destructive to democracy. For many Americans, it has become increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction, proper news from propaganda, attitude from actuality. Is a Fox “News” commentator reporting the news or fabricating it? Is a Facebook comment based on facts or merely well packaged nonsense.

Many of the largest and most successful media outlets today do not focus on the truth. Instead, like all other corporations, they are focused on profit. And what’s profitable in publishing? Entertainment, the truth be damned.

There is nothing new about this. Late 19th century “yellow journalism” was all about sensationalism—the facts were often elided and narratives fabricated to titillate the reader and sell more newspapers. Today we would call this “fake news,” the definition of which is simple: untrue information presented as factual news.

Fake news has more guises than a theater actor. Here are a few:

  1. Propaganda—untruthful information used to promote or protect a specific political position.
  2. False news: reporters or commentators presenting information that is untrue, but presented in a way that is meant to appear honest and forthright.
  3. Fabricated content: news that never happened in the first place.
  4. Manipulated content: news that is twisted to promote a specific vision of events.
  5. False narratives: interviews of people known to be lying.

Thankfully, there are many ways to distinguish fake news from real news, although it requires commitment and effort by the consumer. Here are some guidelines.

  1. Check the source. Is the information from a reliable publication.
  2. Check the documentation. Is there attribution for the information and quotes? Are their reference links?
  3. Check the facts. When a statement or statistic is given, do your own homework. Google it. Here are the best fact-checking sites: Factcheck.org, opensecrets.org, politifact.com, snopes.com, tineye.com, washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker.
  4. Check the About Us section. What is this news organization all about? Is there an obvious bias?
  5. Check the Comments section. Sometimes experts will call out Fake News. Then again, sometimes ignoramuses will do the same thing for real news.
  6. Verify the basic elements of the story by checking to see if it has also been published in reputable publications.

It is your responsibility to ensure that you are reading, watching or listening to news that is accurate and unbiased. It is essential to get your news from a diverse array of media outlets, not a single source. Avoid news from obviously biased sources, such as religious institutions and hyper-partisan websites. Remember that science is based on facts, opinion is not. Fake news can be created by fake or discredited scientists, so check peer-reviewed scientific journals to find the truth. Do not confuse the message with the messenger. Good journalists are trying to present facts in context in a very complicated world. If you don’t like the facts, don’t blame the journalist. When the facts don’t comport with your own opinion, you will experience cognitive dissonance, a confusing, uncomfortable feeling. Forget your personal opinion and go with the facts. Strive to think analytically, not emotionally. Ignore the hyenas of hate and hyperbole.

In the end, the singular priority of a news consumer is precisely that of a journalist: to seek the truth.

9/11 Revisited

This week marks the 19th anniversary of 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in modern history. I was on assignment in Afghanistan in 2003, two years after 9/11, to document attempts to bring education to young girls. I witnessed the devastation and hope that coexist in a war-worn nation.

On the morning of September 11th,2001, nineteen suicide extremists, 15 of whom were from Saudi Arabia, killed almost 3000 innocent civilians. The terrorists were operating on the orders of al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda is a transnational network of militant jihadists who believe that America and Israel are trying to destroy Islam. This radical sect believes that killing civilians is religiously sanctioned and that sharia law should replace all secular justice systems.

America (and the world) was rightfully outraged at the massacre of 3000 civilians and demanded retaliation. Osama bin Laden was leading al Qaeda from a network of hidden locations in Afghanistan. A week after the attacks, the US congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force, giving the president power to “use all necessary and appropriate force” against any nation, organization or person who aided in the9/11 attacks. In less than a month, US and UK forces were fighting in Afghanistan.

After just two months of battles and ceaseless bombing, al Qaeda was on the run and the totalitarian Taliban regime had been toppled. However, Osama bin Laden had not been captured and the Taliban forces were regrouping. In the spring of 2002 President George W. Bush called for the reconstruction of Afghanistan and Congress appropriated $38billion for the effort.

By the time I visited Afghanistan in 2003,the US was committed to helping Afghanistan transform itself into a democracy. This was a noble but quixotic notion. It was clear even back then that to beat Taliban guerillas would require years of high-casualty ground battles combined with the implementation of a nation-wide, male and female, secular education system. You don’t change a medieval society overnight.

Had our focus remained on Afghanistan, perhaps some of this could have been achieved. Instead, in March of 2003President Bush launched a “shock and awe” bombing campaign of Iraq. Why? None of the 9/11 hijackers were from Iraq. There was no evidence that al Qaeda was operating in Iraq or that Osama bin Laden was hiding there. The stated intent was to protect the world by removing “weapons of mass destruction,” WMD, which Saddam Hussein was supposedly developing. This was a ruse. The CIA itself found the WMD argument for war with Iraq weak. Today, there is evidence that the White House knew that it was unlikely Iraq had WMDs. The most coherent explanation for why the US invaded Iraq is that, after the terror and trauma of 9/11, the US needed to re-establish itself as a world power in the Middle East. The horrific consequences of this arrogance are seldom discussed.

Last year the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University published a report detailing the number of casualties since 9/11. In Iraq, civilian deaths directly attributed to the war are approximately 200,000; the total number of American soldiers killed in Iraq is 4500, including at least 11 from Wyoming. In Afghanistan, civilian deaths are 43,000 with 2,300 dead American soldiers, including at least nine from Wyoming.

In retaliation for the killing of 3000 American civilians in the 9/11 attack, the US has lost 7000 American servicemen and women and caused the deaths of 243,000 civilians. (The Watson Institute estimates are conservative; other sources put civilians deaths as high as a million.) Worse, neither Iraq nor Afghanistan are better off than they were before we invaded. This industrial- scale slaughter can only be compared to the tragedy of the Vietnam War, in which 58,000 American soldiers died, while an estimated two million Vietnamese civilians were annihilated.

America must always defend itself. Not only our homeland, but our Constitution, our way of life and our values. But the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force gave a president too much latitude. Any military engagement should be limited, targeted and proportional—Obama’s termination of Osama bin Laden in 2011 is a good example. Killing hundreds of thousands of civilians is incomprehensibly cruel, unacceptably immoral, and flies in the face of the very values for which we are fighting.

 A colleague on my 2003 Afghanistan assignment left me with these thoughts about values:

         “The U.S. fired 88 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Afghanistan in 2001,” he said. “I could build 40 schools for the cost of one of them. The Taliban are still here. They’re just waiting for us to leave. You can kill a warrior, but unless you educate his children, they will become prime recruits.” 

What is democracy?

What is democracy? What does it mean? What does it look like? Over the course of roughly 250 years, it has been a question debated, argued over, and restated. The answer has changed, distorted, and aligned with new ideas. It is a work in progress, something “under construction.”

This spring, Wyoming Humanities will release a new version of our original publication titled “Heal Up and Hair Over.” The book itself has changed, and it is now listed as “Democracy Under Construction.” However, the premise remains the same. It is a conversation starter about the idea of democracy and how it works and doesn’t work – perhaps where we can make improvements and how.

As we approach the 2020 election cycle, we hope many will consider the ideas held within its cover. The ideas represent many influential and thoughtful figures from US and Wyoming history. They speak truths that should make us question, if nothing else, how democracy works – not Congress and the White House – but our individual roles within this process.

Here John Stuart Mill argues a principal foundation of democracy is the role and morality of public discussion. In this, it is our responsibility to respect “the side which a person takes, though it be the contrary side of the question from our own…giving merited honour to everyone…who has the calmness to see and honesty to state what his opponents and their opinions really are, exaggerating nothing to their discredit.” But why?

In “Hamburgers in Jeffrey City,” Marko Ruble tells us a story of an encounter with an individual with widely different political opinions than his own. Aside from the well-worn story that Wyoming is one big city with a very long street, he argues this respect is a fixture of Wyoming identity: independence. He states: “A truly independent person will respect another argument. It’s inherent in the ability for one to call oneself independent.”

Shortly after President Trump’s impeachment vote, I noticed a Facebook post from Wyoming Sen. Enzi. It ended with a message about moving on and moving forward. He said “Too often it feels like our nation is only becoming more divided, more hostile. I do not believe that our country will ever be able to successfully tackle our looming problems if we continue down this road.” I may not always agree with the Senator’s opinions, but I was struck by the perceived calmness.

While other Congressional members constantly berate the other party, jockey for minutes on the national media, and make brazen insults towards their colleagues, Sen. Enzi  does not engage in this. So far as I am aware, this is the only thing he chose to say. And it mirrored what Ruble and I believe is important about Wyoming, democracy, and our respect for other people.

Though I have no idea if Facebook is commonplace enough for senators to take notice, I want to thank him for this. It may not have been enough for some, but it is for me. So, I said these very things. It is not political. I do not agree or disagree with his vote or opinion on the matter. I thanked him and noted that I hoped his replacement will be as well composed.

Facebook is not the place you go for agreement, for conversation, or for much else. Nevertheless, I am struck at how quickly my moderate offer of gratitude was assaulted. Within the day, I was accused by another Wyomingite of being a “bot.” Another lovely individual found the elementary school inspiration to note my last name can be mistaken for “wannabe.” Perhaps more notable was the truth I found in Sam Western’s included article that “In these places, no one is a stranger. Cuss at someone at a country commissioner’s meeting and, sure enough, you’ll see them at the grocery store. This is not the “6 degrees to Kevin Bacon” game. These are people in organizations I work with, or people who work with people I know. Within minutes outside of the online forum, I could have easily reached out to confirm I am real and my name, though awkward to pronounce in English, was very commonplace in Heart Mountain 80 years ago; my Japanese-American heritage is a point of pride.

In many ways, our technology has brought us together, but it also draws us apart on things that matter. It is clear these individuals did not agree with what I had to say, but as Western notes: “Honesty for honesty’s sake can border on vanity. …democracy depends on more than participation and what we say…It obliges adult civic choices when we are alone; [when] we have less compunction about our choices when sitting solo before our computer.” Democracy is not accomplished through “work-avoidance schemes.”

The news media is full, and will only continue to be full, of this divisive, maligned, and even hurtful news. We do not need to add to the cacophony. Over the next year, we will undoubtably, each of us, encounter individuals whose version of democracy will seem counterintuitive to our own. Yet, we are all Americans, and though there is work to be done, this is our democracy. As Terry Tempest Williams ends her article:

If we cannot engage in the respectful listening, there can be no civil dialogue, and without civil dialogue, we the people will simply become bullies and brutes, deaf to the truth that we are standing on the edge of a political chasm that is beginning to crumble. We all stand to lose ground. Democracy is an insecure landscape. Do we dare to step back – stretch – and create an arch of understanding?