In the early moments of the American republic, the nation’s sovereignty and security presented no small worry to the founders. In the 1790s, independence was in its fragile infancy, a nascent experiment threatened by the former mother country; and the French Revolution created anxiety those violent passions would spill overseas, inspiring more upheaval in the still roiling republic.
Not unlike our own moment, many worried about foreign powers seducing the nation and also about the vulnerability of citizens to deceit and manipulation undermining democracy from within the nation.
American novels of this moment certainly reflect this anxiety. Take Susanna Rowson’s best-selling 1790s novel Charlotte Temple, featuring virtuous and properly-raised young female protagonist Charlotte falling prey to the seductions of the rake Montraville (a British solider with a French name!), leading to her tragic ruin. Or William Hill Brown’s novel The Power of Sympathy (1789), featuring a woman overpowered by her passions and seduced unwittingly into an incestuous relationship. Charles Brockden Brown’s 1798 novel Wieland tells the tale of a man, in the throes of religious enthusiasm, who kills his own family, guided by a voice he believes to be God, which may be the work of a mysterious ventriloquist character.
These novels served as cautionary tales for readers in the early republic. They articulated anxieties about citizens’ wherewithal to govern themselves in their own interests with rational self-sufficiency; to not let their passions overwhelm their interests; and to listen with careful and critical discernment to the many voices of authority and cultural persuasion seeking to influence them, so as not to fall prey to tragic seduction.
Indeed, the political moment was novel. The nation was founding a new government on Enlightenment principles of reason, rooting authority not in an all-powerful ruler but in the people, banking on people’s ability to think and act rationally in their own self-interest and on their virtue, their willingness and ability to serve the public good ahead of private avarice. Could the people’s virtue, these novels asked, withstand the seductions of those preying on them and undermining their interests? Would their virtue align with reason?
We could ask these questions in our digital culture in which bombards us with fake news and alternative facts, at times the work of bots from abroad, acting as ventriloquists throwing their voices into the heart of American culture and politics.
Enlightenment thinking believed in the power of education to provide people with rational self-sufficiency so they could think critically for themselves on their own authority, reason through situations, assess information, and detect their self-interest and the interest of the nation as a whole. The proposal, indeed, was for a new form of government. While the word “govern” in the seventeenth century was basically synonymous with “rule,” in the eighteenth century it came to mean “steer,” “guide,” “regulate,” and, above all, “educate.”
Would education and people’s rational self-sufficiency be a strong enough basis for democracy?
The answer was a matter of controversy. Thomas Jefferson believed, of course, in the power of education. John Adams, on the other hand, feared that “human reason and human conscience are not a match for human passion, human imagination and human enthusiasm.”
These questions and worries assert themselves with no less relevance today. The difference is that in the 1790s, chief politicians and leaders were asking those questions, committed to the project of educating the populace to protect democratic sovereignty and national security. Now, it seems our own President, the White House, and the Department of Justice that is intent on obfuscation and deceit, resisting transparency in its refusal to hand over information, declaring fact-based journalism and scientific reporting to be “fake,” and outright misrepresenting reality to the American people—take William Barr’s now well-documented misrepresentations of the Mueller report and the ongoing tally of Trump’s prodigious lying.
But we do find evidence of hope in answering our founders’ question affirmatively—that education and rational self-sufficiency can be the basis for democracy, for creating the critical citizenry democracy requires.
Finland has sought to secure its democracy and protect itself from Russian intervention in precisely this way. Sharing an 832-mile border with Russia, Finland has fought off Russian propaganda attacks since it declared independence from Russian 101 years ago. It has increased efforts in the digital age, especially after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, revamping its education system to emphasize critical thinking and developing a widespread initiative to educate residents, journalists, students, and politicians to recognize fake news and counter false information intended to sow division.
Ironically, as Eliza Mackintosh has reported for CNN, Finland invited American experts to help them design the initiative. And Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto, Mackntosh reports, “called on every Finn to take responsibility for the fight against false information” as social media assaults ramped up in 2015.
The initiative was not undertaken in the educational system, narrowly speaking. The effort was to educate the population as a whole, so classes are offered, for example, at adult education centers, where one can take a seminar on how to know if one has been trolled by a Russian army and learn how to detect manipulated videos, false profiles, and so forth.
As chief communications officer for the prime minister’s office Jussi Toivanen says, “It’s not just a government problem, the whole society has been targeted. We are doing our part, but it’s everyone’s task to protect the Finnish democracy. The first line of defense is the kindergarten teacher.”
According to Mackintosh, this initiative, which is “one layer of a multi-pronged, cross-sector approach the country is taking to prepare citizens of all ages for the complex digital landscape of today . . . appears to be working, and now other countries are looking to Finland as an example of how to win the war on misinformation.”
Maybe the U.S. will follow suit. Then again, in Finland it started with the President, whereas here the deception begins with the President.
Nonetheless, there is hope in knowing a devotion to public education and critical thinking can prove effective in the fight for democracy.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.