Part I of a bi-weekly six-part series
Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? – John 18:38 KJV
The truth is truth is on trial. The fact is facts are on trial. What’s reality? “The Matrix” in real time.
A time-honored practice among politicians is to cherry pick the most favorable facts and statistics to paint him/her in the most positive light. But with Donald Trump, that practice has spiraled off into a different dimension. Rather than pick facts, he simply makes them up, creates them out of the ether. Everyone knows that, even his most ardent defenders. But to him and them, facts are irrelevant. It’s the message itself that’s important. Facts be damned.
It didn’t begin with Trump. For centuries, autocrats created alternative realities a willing populace swallowed for a variety of reasons. The primary one: fear. In its most extreme, primal form, as terror. In a more safety context, fear of the outsider, self-protection whether the fear is justified.
Nazi leader Hermann Goering enunciated it concisely: “Of course the people don’t want war. But after all, it’s the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it’s always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it’s a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.”
Fear over reason. Inconvenient truths, facts that do not support one’s preferred position.
It’s about going with one’s feelings rather than substantive evidence. As New Right titan Newt Gingrich put it about Trump’s falsified claim the murder rate was rising nationwide, “As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel and let you go with the theoreticians.” So, build on and inflame unfounded fear rather than educate.
The Oxford Dictionaries defines post-truth, its 2016 word of the year, as “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Planting and sowing doubt. Not just the facts themselves, but also the processes used to uncover them. Their goal is to undermine it. Trump is doing it now with the Mueller investigation into the Russia’s—Putin’s—cyber-attack on our 2016 presidential election.
In his recent work “Post-Truth,” which is part of the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series, Professor Lee McIntyre, a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and an Instructor in Ethics at Harvard Extension School, explores the surreal world in which we’re living “where ‘alternative facts’ replace actual facts and feelings have more weight than evidence.” McIntyre “traces the development of this phenomenon from its roots in science denial, cognitive bias, and postmodernism through the rise of ‘fake news,’ ‘information silos,’ and alternative media.”
It sounds heady, but “Post-Truth” is not over-my-head reading.
Much like Alice, McIntyre descends into the rabbit hole of Denierism, a phantasmagoric world habituated by intellectually dishonest rightwing media local to national in which orcs, the Great Pumpkin, and leprechauns romp, and other ideologies that “routinely embrace an obscenely high standard of doubt toward facts that they don’t want to believe, alongside complete credulity toward any facts that fit with their agenda.”
“The rejection,” McIntyre writes, “of this—credible, agreed-upon process by which facts are credibly gathered and reliably used to shape one’s beliefs—undermines the idea that some things are true irrespective of how we feel about them.”
But why? Why would intelligent humans engage in such intellectual perfidy? For them, post-truth is “is not so much a claim that truth does not exist as that facts are subordinate to our political point of view.” The bottom line: supremacy, racial and/or otherwise, and political domination.
In her work “The Origins of Totalitarianism” (1951), Hannah Arendt writes, “the ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction…true and false…no longer exists.”
Part II in two weeks: The attack on science, one of the “credible, agreed-upon processes.”