Jeffrey Bleich: democracies in crisis as truth takes a backseat

Tuesday 22 August 2017

Jeffrey Bleich speaking at Swinburne Chancellor's Lecture

Former US Ambassador to Australia, Jeffrey Bleich, told guests at the 2017 Chancellor's Lecture that Western governments are being brought to the brink of disaster.

In summary

  • Jeffrey Bleich delivers 2017 Chancellor’s Lecture
  • Warns that dithering governments and accelerating technologies were creating a crisis
  • Western world being undermined by ‘truth decay’

Former US Ambassador to Australia, Jeffrey Bleich, has delivered a keynote address at Swinburne where he warned that the future of Western democracies was under threat.

Mr Bleich, an eminent US lawyer, told the 400 guests at the 2017 Chancellor’s Lecture that much of the social and political unrest occurring around the world today was a direct result of governments failing to keep up with accelerating technologies.

Welcoming Mr Bleich to Swinburne, Chancellor Graham Goldsmith said the former Special Counsel to Barack Obama had established an international reputation as a litigator, and was now ranked as one of the US’s 500 most influential lawyers.

Mr Goldsmith said that as US Ambassador to Australia, Mr Bleich strengthened the relationship between the two countries.

In his thought-provoking speech, Mr Bleich warned that the combination of technological disruption together with dithering governments was “shaking the foundations of what it takes to be a democracy”.

And, he said, the results were potentially “catastrophic”.

“The combination of runaway technology and walkaway government is destabilising nations and is rattling our political systems,” Mr Bleich told the audience.

“Unless governments like ours become as innovative as our people in doing their function, then our planet, our people and our principles may suffer.

“That’s not a prediction or an attempt to be apocalyptic. It is evident today in capitals around the world.”

Surging technologies a major concern 

Mr Bleich said the last time Western democracies experienced such a disconnect between surging technologies and indifferent policymakers was during the Industrial Revolution at the turn of the 19th Century.

“It overwhelmed people and government,” he said

“The effects might sound familiar. Popular unrest, especially in Europe and East Asia, xenophobia, isolationism, deadly pollution, violent unrest and the emergence of authoritarians and demagogues around the world.”

Mr Bleich said governments were so overwhelmed by technological advances that they were increasingly interfering in scientific research in a desperate attempt to manage it.

“When government attempts to interfere in research projects or influence the outcome of scientific research it breaks the bond that keeps technology and policy in harmony," he said.

Freedom is the fuel that propels the engine of innovation”

“When the government simply asserts that climate science is a hoax and ignores its findings; when it tries to ban the study of stem cells; when it suppresses research showing vaccines do not cause autism – it breaks the bond of trust that is necessary for government and industry to partner together.”

He said that wavering governments and hurtling technology had resulted in a “technology-enabled” crime wave to the extent that Russian hackers were able to help unseat a democratic government and criminal networks could use cyber terrorism to hold hospitals full of sick patients hostage.

“Innovation industry simply got too far out ahead of government without anyone appreciating all the risks,” he said.

“As a result we are vulnerable. Our private financial systems, our communication, our transportation, our energy grids, water supplies even our voting systems. They are all exposed.”

"Truth decay" undermining the Western World

He warned that the Western World was being undermined by “truth decay” where facts are ignored and people choose only to listen to realities that support their world view.

“Nothing will corrode this fragile bond of trust that binds us as people and our democracies together faster than corrupting the truth and our belief in one another,” he said.

“If people can be convinced that their fellow citizens aren’t like them, that they are dangerous, that they don’t respect the law, that they don’t deserve the same treatment, then there is no common basis for trust.

“If the truth is whatever you want to believe, then eventually there is no truth and you believe only those who agree with you.”

And he said nobody recognised this power better than Donald Trump.

“In this environment where facts are ignored and people choose facts that support their world view, is it any wonder that a substantial number of voters believe the most outlandish claims; that the President can claim it wasn’t raining when it was, that crowds broke records when they clearly didn’t, that millions of people cast illegal votes when they didn’t, that no one knows that the Russians had anything to do with hacking the Presidential Election and that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese and the US Government.”

Listen to Mr Bleich’s 2017 Chancellor’s Lecture.