A very disturbing new phrase is being uttered by the powerful. After the British “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union, British elites are wondering whether they now live in a “post-truth society”. Michael Gove's statement “people in this country have had enough of experts”, carefully unpacked, says that the voters have had enough of truth. “It has now spiralled into a debate about how to better appeal to 'post-truth' citizens, as though they are baffling and lack reason”. This formulation of course classically blames the victim, but it also releases politicians and public servants from doing their jobs: “Civil servants who, pre-referendum, were embracing the demand to share more of the evidence behind policy are now talking as if it were subversive - 'now’s not a good time to raise this with the minister'”. ( Tracey Brown, “The idea of a 'post-truth society' is elitist and obnoxious”) In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel, viewing the same surge of the far right that is happening in Britain and America, blames emergence of a “post-facts world, where people are not necessarily interested in facts, they are just following their feelings”. (Alison Smale and Melissa Eddy, “Merkel Accepts Blame for Her Party's Losses”, The New York Times September 20, 2016 p. A8)
The formulation "post-truth" is a horrifying one. I have learned to test all coined phrases and political language generally by asking if they take or deny responsibility for their subject matter. Reagan's "mistakes were made" is not the same as"I was wrong". Once you learn the rules, examining statements for what they say about responsibility is an enjoyable game. You start to spot a huge variety of ways in which people say they are not responsible for something. For example, the “I'm not a...” formulation; Cain may have started it when he said he was not Abel's keeper. General Maxwell Taylor, asked by a reporter why Strategic Hamlets and other reform measures were showing no visible benefits to the Vietnamese people, replied: “I don't know. I'm no theoretician”. David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (New York:Ballantine Books 1992) p. 176 Presidential candidate Jeb Bush, asked whether “there should be a constitutional right to same-sex marriage”, replied: “I don’t but I’m not a lawyer and clearly this has been accelerated at a warp pace.” ( Pam Key, “Jeb: I’m Not a Lawyer But Same-Sex Marriage Should Not Be Constitutional Right”).
Some political language doesn't just deny the speaker's responsibility, but all human agency whatever. These are the formulations which characterize mass human evil as weather. Often, when a class of people is incurring a terrible harm, the Official Narrative states that this is due to a Glitch, a random external event, and no-one is responsible. This is commonly the cover story for wars and for economic events, such as falling wages, rising unemployment and hikes in prices. Samuel Butcher, summarizing Demosthenes, described the torpid Greek attitude towards Philip of Macedon: “The Greeks looked on as they might at a hailstorm, praying that they themselves might be spared, but without an effort to prevent it”. Samuel Henry Butcher, Demosthenes (New York: D. Appleton & Co. 1882) p. 109 An official who resigned from the Johnson administration, who was more qualified than most to identify those responsible for the Vietnam debacle, reiterated the Official Narrative instead: “There will be no act of madness, no single villain on whom to discharge guilt; just the flow of history”. Edward Weisband and Thomas M. Franck, Resignation in Protest (New York: Grossman Publishers 1975) p. 79 Remarkably, even the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., in a small but influential 1967 book highly critical of every aspect of the war, agreed to diffuse the blame: “The Vietnam story is a tragedy without villains”. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Bitter Heritage (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company 1967) p. 32 William Shawcross noted that by the time of the Carter administration, “Vietnam and Watergate were frequently referred to as 'traumas' or 'tragedies' rather than as specific acts and decisions by officials”. William Shawcross, Sideshow (New York: Simon & Schuster 1979) p. 393 Today in America, the press largely reports on the trend of the declining middle class, and even on very specific historical events such as the collapse of the mortgage bubble, as if these were random weather-like events (though there is irony in the fact that today, even changes in the weather are the result of human actions). Vivian Gornick reports the insight of a young man sometime in the Depression, on his way to joining the American Communist Party: “There's got to be some explanation for it, its not like its fire or flood, its people doing this to other people....” Vivian Gornick, The Romance of American Communism p. 82
Mike Davis gives a miniature case study of such hypocritical and evasive power-speech: in 2001, Algerian slums were devastated by floods and mudslides, with the loss of 900 lives. The impact of these events was magnified by the “degradation, inadequate repair, aging and neglect” of the neighborhoods, houses and structures; additionally, “to deny insurgents hiding places and escape routes, the authorities had deforested the hills above” the slums “and sealed the sewers”. Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London: Verso 2007) p. 125 President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, visiting the scene, said, “the disaster was simply the will of God”. p. 125 Lewis H. Lapham says that Republicans, arriving in Washington, know “they can do no wrong”--are Dreadly Certain-- and “define evil as a pollutant borne on an alien wind; nothing to do with man's inward nature but something that arrives, inexplicably, from the sea, the ozone layer, or the slums”. Lewis H. Lapham, Gag Rule (New York: The Penguin Press 2004) p. 136 Ta-Nehisi Coates said that American racism “is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men”. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau 2015) p. 7 He adds that “forgetting.... is yet another necessary component of the Dream”. Hegel described a particularly poignant variation, in which we are citizens or subjects of a polity which is entirely corrupt, yet believe it is essentially sound, just a bit glitchy. “On this showing the institute in question escapes obloquy, and the evil that disfigures it appears something foreign to it”. G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History (New York: Dover Publications 1956) p. 412
The phrase "post-truth world" is an extreme, really an extremist, denial of human agency; a denial that there are powerful liars in the environment, of whom the speaker is one, or whom he is encouraging, or tolerating, or passive towards, but that instead an alien wind, come from God knows where, has blown all the truth out of the atmosphere. This is one of the last, and saddest, denials of agency in the history of the West, of Enlightenment, of the freedom of speech. In a world where even the most powerful have a tendency to characterize themselves as pathetic victims of unknown forces, I contrast those people and characters who have gloriously claimed agency: the gangsters in movies who never forget “This is the life we chose”; Emma Goldman, who wrote: “Notwithstanding all our hardships and sorrows, all persecution and imprisonment—perhaps because of it all—we have lived the lives of our choice. What more can one expect of Life”. Vivian Gornick, Emma Goldman (New Haven: Yale University Press 2011) p. 130 "Post-truth" makes me realize that "post-anything" is a passive, responsibility-denying, "what just happened?" formulation. I always hated the phrase "post-modern" and now I know why.
Although we haven't yet heard an American say "post-truth" that I know of (its an egg-headed, European, post-modern coinage, which makes it particularly passive, sad, fatalistic, "apres-nous le deluge"), our public discourse is full of related and revealing phrases. For example, attacks on "experts" are a rejection of truth. Donald Trump on expertise: "You look at what China’s doing in the South China Sea, and they say, 'Oh, Trump doesn’t have experts'... Let me tell you, I do have experts but I know what’s happening. And look at the experts we’ve had, OK? Look at the experts. All of these people have had experts. You know, I’ve always wanted to say this—I’ve never said this before with all the talking we all do—all of these experts, 'Oh we need an expert-' The experts are terrible".( Nick Gass,"Trump:'The Experts are Terrible'"). Another sign of the "post-truth world" is the attack on "fact-checkers" in Presidential debates. Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani, who seems to be diving into ever deeper pools of degradation and madness, said: “If I were Donald Trump I wouldn’t participate in another debate unless I was promised that a journalist would act like a journalist and not an incorrect, ignorant fact-checker.” (Grace Guarneri, "Rudy Giuliani is so mad that Lester Holt fact-checked Donald Trump, he thinks the GOP nominee shouldn’t do another presidential debate".) And yet one more indicator--after this I will stop, though I could quote a hundred more--is the trope that Trump stresses, and the voters want, emotions over facts. Newsweek published an opinion piece by a debate and logic specialist titled, "The Donald Trump Way of Debate: Emotion not Reason". In a similarly-titled article in The New Republic, Richard Ashby Wilson said: "Demagogues do not reassure the electorate with a rational assessment of risk as mainstream politicians tend to do. Instead, they play up existing threats, embrace a narrative of victimhood and sow despair", (Richard Ashby Wilson, "Why Trump Emphasizes Emotion Over Facts").
Of course, once the most powerful person or institution sets an example by not caring about truth, the behavior spreads through the lesser power-hierarchies like an infection (infection and disease metaphors are another prominent way of denying human agency). The media have eagerly jumped into the "post-truth" pool, led by Jeff Zucker, whom I have started to see as almost a comic-book supervillain trying to destroy Enlightenment civilization. Zucker at NBC created the Donald Trump myth, which is actually based on nothing, by commissioning and broadcasting The Apprentice. Now the supreme evil wizard at CNN, Zucker hired Donald Trump's just-fired campaign manager Corey Lewandoski as an on-air commentator, despite knowing that Lewandoski had a “nondisparagement” clause in his contract which would prevent him ever saying anything which could be construed as negative about the candidate, and would remain on Trump's payroll through the end of the year. Zucker claims that “the network needed to bring in voices supportive of the Republican nominee to balance its commentary ranks”, even though it already had conservative voices not drawing a paycheck from Trump. (Michael Calderone, “CNN Chief Jeff Zucker Defends Hiring Ex-Trump Campaign Manager Corey Lewandowski”). The lines were sometimes blurry in the past—Walter Lippmann would write a speech for a candidate, then report on it—but neither he nor Walter Cronkite ever had to sit next to a paid flack for Roosevelt or Goldwater and pretend the individual was a journalist. Corey Lewandoski is a monster emerging from a devastating crack in the facade of the “post-truth” media, and Zucker is to blame.
Of course, if we actually took responsibility for where we are, we could have a conversation about how we got here and how to get out. Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas?, from 2004, is a wonderful, raging assault on a political environment from which all truth has leaked out. "Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization". Thomas Frank, What's the Matter With Kansas? (NEW York: Metropolitan Books 2004) p. 7 "The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off". Frank's searing essay, written during the George W. Bush administration, delineates the pre-conditions for Donald Trump.
I am not arguing that one force or trend only has put us in a swamp of lies. There has been a perfect storm (that weather metaphor again) of converging forces: the increasing complexity of the subject matter, the transformation of the world political and financial system into a set of "machineries" no one person can understand (experts in a host of disciplines are required); the decrease in time to react, so that decisions Napoleon could have pondered for months must be made in a day, and the decisions Napoleon would have taken a half hour to make must be made in a minute; the orality and primitive nature of broadcast media; their increasing stupidity of discourse in the battle for ratings, made even worse through monopoly (“Vulgarity is linked to corporate control and highly concentrated, only semi-competitive markets”. Robert McChesney, quoted by Frank at p. 75), and the beat goes on. Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt says that “Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about....This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled—whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others—to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything”. Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2005) pp. 63-64 The spectacle is ubiquitous on the news shows of Donald Trump bullshitting, with a look of pouting conviction, his way through topics of which he has no knowledge whatever, the nuclear triad, Republican abortion policy, the British “Brexit” campaign.
The stampede towards emotion and away from expertise is a panicked flight from Enlightenment values. The leaders whose job it was to educate us, balance us, to put their bodies in the way if necessary, are instead leading the charge, for self-aggrandizement like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson, ambition and a desire to be relevant again like Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani, or a mere fear of being swept away if they don't pander, like Theresa May or Paul Ryan. Go back and re-read James Madison's Federalist No. 10 on "faction", and you will see we have ended up in the precise mess the Framers most feared. “By a faction," Madison said, "I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.... A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.” If they lack mechanisms for avoiding or checking faction, "democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
Contrast the medieval chronicler Einhard, who writing of his employer and patron Charlemagne, observed: “Of all kings Charlemagne was the most eager in his search for wise men and in his determination to provide them with living conditions in which they could pursue knowledge in all reasonable comfort”. Lewis Thorpe, tr. Two Lives of Charlemagne (London: Penguin Books 969) p. 49 This simple statement becomes remarkable when you think about two things: that Charlemagne was able to set this goal, and largely fulfill it, in the eighth century, while no president today would state such a goal, and anyway would be terribly hampered in achieving it by the decline of American education and universities, graft and bloat in government programs, the manipulations of capitalism, and the general sophistry and incompetence in the environment.
The stunning idea of a “post-truth” or “post-facts” society deliberately ignores that is impossible to navigate a ship or a nation, build a bridge, fly an airplane, or launch a space shuttle in a truthless environment. Fred Craddock, in a how-to manual on sermon-writing, quotes an aphorism I had never heard: “A lie will take you far but will not take you home”.Fred B. Craddock, Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press 1985) p. 174 Here, from the voice recorder of a plane which crashed into the Potomac in 1982, is an actual example of an attempt to fly a plane in a "post-truth" world. The causes of the crash were a series of cumulative pilot errors, including a failure to turn on the de-icing system. The plane was held on the runway for forty-nine minutes, during which snow and ice continued to accumulate. Frozen sensors failed to give correct readings at take-off. The First Officer knew from the feel of the plane that not enough speed had been attained, despite the reassuring reading on the frozen gauge, but was tentative and deferential: he didn't want to anger the pilot too much by telling him the truth. The pilot, in his "post-truth" state, uncritically believed the gauge, like Americans today believing what they are told by Donald Trump.
5:59:32 CAM-1 Okay, your throttles. 15:59:35 [SOUND OF ENGINE SPOOLUP] 15:59:49 CAM-1 Holler if you need the wipers. 15:59:51 CAM-1 It’s spooled. Real cold, real cold. 15:59:58 CAM-2 God, look at that thing. That don’t seem right, does it? Uh, that’s not right. 16:00:09 CAM-1 Yes it is, there’s eighty. 16:00:10 CAM-2 Naw, I don’t think that’s right. Ah, maybe it is. 16:00:21 CAM-1 Hundred and twenty. 16:00:23 CAM-2 I don’t know.
The plane took off, was airborne for just thirty seconds, and then crashed into a bridge over the Potomac, with the loss of 73 lives. Had the pilot and co-pilot functioned together in a truth-world, there was enough time to abort the takeoff and live.