A petard, from a 17th-century manuscript of military designs. Photo: Wikipedia

In the good old days when people used to talk to one another and debate intelligently, instead of “tweeting,” the Shakespearean term “hoist with your own petard” still meant something (even though nobody actually knew what a “petard” was).

On a recent episode of his Politicking television program on RT America, Larry King interviewed Robert C. O’Brien, an American lawyer who once had a diplomatic position under US president George W. Bush. King could have saved some airtime by simply providing a link to the “Neocon Talking Points Handbook.”

About the only semi-original thought from O’Brien was that Donald Trump’s September 19 address to the UN General Assembly was “hard-hitting” because it “named and shamed the bad guys” — that is, those who don’t toe the line of Saudi hegemony in the Middle East, those who don’t see Israel’s persecution of Gaza as particularly wondrous, those who don’t think the US rather than China should be dominant in the South China Sea and, of course, “socialists.”

Going beyond insults and clever memes

An immediate reaction to O’Brien’s shallowness could be that he was hoist with his own petard — smiling throughout, he seemed sincerely unaware of what a fool he was making of himself. But no one ever “makes a fool of himself”: People are made fools of by others capable of thinking for themselves, shunning groupthink, listening to the views of intelligent people who differ from theirs, mounting a coherent defence of their own opinions, willing to admit it when they’re wrong, and possessed of a sense of humor that goes beyond insults and clever memes on Facebook.

But people like that are becoming as rare as the Bornean orangutan. And, unfortunately for “progressives,” not just on the right.

There are many reasons for the dumbing-down of the English-speaking world

There are many reasons for the dumbing-down of the English-speaking world. Journalists would argue that the steep decline in quality reporting and intelligent analysis, especially on television but increasingly in newspapers as well, is one of the main causes.

To cite one recent example from the US, reports about the height of Melania Trump’s heels during her husband’s visit to hurricane-stricken Texas easily outnumbered interviews of scientists explaining the links between man-made climate change and the rapid worsening of tropical storms. And you will search the mainstream in vain for “Russian collusion” stories of real importance, amid the breathless media quest for evidence that Putinbots in Macedonia made a speck of difference in the 2016 US presidential election.

But there are many other factors besides the laming of corporate media. In all of the major English-speaking countries, access to higher education has become much more difficult during the past 30 years — more than a generation — and even when it is accessible, it has become far more difficult to justify spending huge amounts of money toward a degree in the social sciences, let alone the arts.

If there is not a reasonable chance of your diploma getting you a job lucrative enough to start paying down that mountain of student debt, it’s off the table. So, now what passes for education, except for the very wealthy, is strictly vocational, with little room for intellectual pursuit and independent thought. This is a fundamental change in only a few decades.

Asia Times invites a much broader range of views than normally found in mainstream media, and hardly a day goes by when its readers can’t learn something new. But because of the site’s openness, brainless talking-point parrots and neoconservative warmongers are allowed to share the podium with shining intellects.

Twisting the truth, gulling the gullible

Lefties who never leave the choir being preached to by fellow lefties, by organizations like The Young Turks who make a living mocking Republicans, neocons, and the religious right, can be deluded into thinking all conservatives are idiots. Or, they might think that if there are some conservatives capable of forming full sentences, they only do so to twist the truth and gull the gullible.

They are wrong. Nowadays the word “conservative” is misused to refer to reactionaries or libertarian extremists. The word more properly refers to a person who believes that even if conditions are not perfect, they could be made much worse by messing with them — especially with overly generous social programs that threaten the state’s ability to afford national security, higher wages that could aggravate unemployment, or labor laws that hold back productivity or give too much protection to incompetent workers.

These real conservatives want a just society as sincerely as “progressives” do; but they favor a slower, more cautious methodology. And it’s likely there are a lot more of them than the racists, science deniers, xenophobes, misogynists and other dunderheads who get the headlines. For their part, progressives feel that time has run out — the damage done by decades of corporate-controlled politics, financialization of global economics, environmental destruction and the war industry can’t be repaired with half-measures.

And so, once again the progressive cause faces a dilemma. Freedom of speech is fundamental to that cause. Yet petards that have become damp squibs: Debate that has been dumbed down to 140 characters, the economic destruction of liberal education, and the concentration of what cleverness remains in the hands of conservatives and technocrats conspire against radical change toward a world free of poverty and war and ruled by justice and tolerance.

David Simmons

David Simmons is a Canadian journalist based in Thailand. He has worked for newspapers and news websites in four countries, three of them in Asia. He holds a bachelor's degree in linguistics from the University of British Columbia and a diploma in journalism from Langara College in Vancouver.