“Goodness without knowledge is weak…yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous.” This excerpt from Andover’s 1778 Constitution, quoted in the Academy’s Statement of Purpose, is on the very first page of the Blue Book. Andover is a community that values using knowledge when working toward the greater good, and this ideal has never been more relevant than during this election cycle with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
While both candidates have faced constant scrutiny from the press for the duration of their campaigns, there are certain instances when news organizations have stopped providing fair and balanced coverage, and have instead drifted into the realm of covering conspiracy theories. This is in large part due to the heavy influence Mr. Trump has had in bringing conspiracy theories toward the mainstream. When a candidate for president discusses conspiracy theories, they immediately make the illegitimate topics actual points of interest for the mainstream media, where they are repeatedly discussed during 24/7 news coverage. The real danger, however, of treating conspiracy theories not as lies but as “controversial” topics that are open to debate is that doing so devalues facts and legitimate evidence. Conspiracy theories should not be controversial topics, nor should they be open for debate, rather, they should be treated as what they are: simply and undeniably wrong.
Yet, despite a plethora of resources that fact check, confirm, and deny the truthfulness of the various statements that politicians make every day, over the course of their campaigns for president, it has become clear that Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump have vastly different values and convictions regarding facts, or lack thereof, and more importantly, the worth of conspiracy theories. During last week’s Presidential Debate, one short, digestible exchange between the two candidates highlighted their contrasting realities:
“The homepage of my website…[is] a fact-checker,” said Mrs. Clinton, “so if you want to see in real-time what the facts are, please go and take a look—”
To which, Mr. Trump interrupted her, saying, “And take a look at [my facts] also…”
With this single comment, Mr. Trump reminded us of his war on facts and reason and how he has led it, first through Fox News, where he was a regular, scheduled guest beginning in 2011, and now during his campaign for president.
When it comes to honesty, Mr. Trump could barely perform any worse. He has lied consistently about things as mundane as the attitude of his supporters at his events, claiming that when a black pastor in Flint, Michigan, told him to not give a political speech in the church, a crowd of supporters began chanting “Let him speak!” when there were clearly no such chants. While these falsehoods do inflict harm and warrant scrutiny, it is his conspiracy theories that have caused the most widespread damage while simultaneously laying the foundation of his campaign.
Mr. Trump has pushed numerous demonstrably false conspiracies to the forefront of the national discussion, from suggesting that there is a link between vaccines and autism during a debate prior to the Republican Primaries to repeatedly citing tapes of people who he claims he saw celebrating the fall of the World Trade Center in New Jersey on 9/11 to praising Alex Jones, a prominent conspiracy theorist that has run articles on his website, Infowars, suggesting that Mrs. Clinton had Parkinson’s following her pneumonia diagnosis.
Despite having many in his name, by far the most popular of Mr. Trump’s conspiracy theories has been the birther movement, which suggests that President Barack Obama is not, in fact, an American citizen. Mr. Trump perpetuated this lie from 2011, when he was spreading it as a regular guest on Fox News, up until last month when he finally admitted that President Obama was born in the United States last month, five years after any shred of doubt was put to rest when the President released his full birth certificate. But, of course, Mr. Trump could not, and would not, apologize for his harmful campaign against the legitimacy of the country’s first black president.
With Mr. Trump’s history of controversy, it was all too fitting, and no surprise, when he hired Steve Bannon of Breitbart to help run and manage his campaign. Mr. Bannon is a prominent instigator of conspiracies in his own right; he said that he wanted to make Breitbart a platform for the alt-right. The alt-right is against establishment politics and has floated racist conspiracies—the idea the white people have an average IQ of 100, while black people hover around only 85 is just one of many—that have begun to receive attention in the mainstream because of the platform Mr. Trump and his supporters have not only on Fox News but on other various major media platforms now that he is the Republican nominee. These claims are not backed up with solid evidence but are still advertised repeatedly in the mainstream media.
Mr. Trump’s tirades, completely removed from fact and reason, have brought fringe, right-wing conspiracies close to the mainstream. Mr. Trump has neither knowledge of the truth, nor goodness in his heart, when he makes baseless accusations about his opponents and enemies or blatantly lies to promote himself and his brand. The way Mr. Trump has conducted himself, especially over the past five years as he publicized and popularized conspiracies through the mainstream media, demonstrates his weaknesses as a person and the legitimate danger of his candidacy.
While Mr. Trump is firmly against the fundamental values upon which Andover was founded and continues to run, his candidacy should spark an important dialogue on campus. We are taught here to live, learn, and think with the ability to discern between fact and fiction, not to conjure an unsubstantiated theory that is repeated endlessly in the hope that it, too, will become fact. What are we to do, as members of an intellectual community, when a prominent public figure (i.e. Mr. Trump) shows us that facts mean nothing to him or to his decisions? Do we accept the state Mr. Trump, whether he wins or loses this election, has brought us to? Or do we act with a certain kind of exceptionalism, rising above the melee of nonsense to use knowledge with goodness? I suggest the latter.
Cedric Elkouh is a two-year Upper from Enfield, N.H., and an Associate Online Producer for The Phillipian.
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