The war on truth

Post-truth is an invention of the powerful, not the powerless. It comes from the top, specifically with the intent to undermine the truth that may be uncomfortable to those in power

Donald Trump: still refuses to concede
Donald Trump: still refuses to concede

The New Year 2021 finds the war on truth being slowly lost.

Political observers reckon that the so-called ‘post-truth’ era took off in 2016, when the rationality of democratic principles started being threatened by emotions. The prefix ‘post’ in post-truth is not a chronological reference to something that occurred ‘after’ truth, but a statement about the fact that truth is no longer essential, that truth has become obsolete and that truth has been superseded by a new reality.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines ‘post-truth’ as an adjective relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

In the US, despite his loss in last November’s election, Donald Trump got almost 73.5 million votes – 10.1 million more than he got in 2016. After Trump completely mishandled the COVID-19 pandemic in the US, spewed daily nonsense and lies on Twitter, and literally caged immigrant children, some 10 million new voters opted for him to continue leading the US.

The war on truth is based on emotions. This is a world-wide phenomenon that has led to Brexit, the renunciation of climate change, the vilification of immigrants and the rejection of vaccines – including those that can spare the world from the scourge of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a new world where conspiracy theories thrive and the clout of the mainstream media that considers truth as ‘sacred’ has shrivelled because emotions have taken over.

The clout of the values of truth, honesty and accountability has withered. This is bad news for democracy – wherever it is established or purports to be established.

Uttering lies in politics and appeals to emotion rather than facts is not something new. Politicians and people in power have resorted to lies and bullshit, at least since the time of Cicero and the Roman Republic.

Observers recall George Orwell who, in the first half of the twentieth century, had said that politicians along the entire political spectrum lie and make their lies sound truthful.

But Israeli intellectual and historian, Yuval Noah Harar, argues that technology makes the current trend of fake news different. Technology, he explains, enables the tailoring of propaganda on an individual basis, and matches the lies to individual prejudices. Trolls and hackers use big data algorithms to identify each person’s unique weaknesses and tendencies and then fabricate stories consistent with them. They use these stories to reinforce the prejudices of those believing in them, to exacerbate the rifts in society, and to puncture the democratic system from within.

Post-truth is an invention of the powerful, not the powerless. It comes from the top, specifically with the intent to undermine the truth that may be uncomfortable to those in power. It appeals to the notion of consensus in order to weaken consensus around truth. This is where the paradox lies: post-truth borrows the same theoretical foundations of truth to undermine the foundations of truth. It appropriates the notion of consensus in order to undermine the consensus around truth and legitimize the idea of post-truth.

Consider Donald Trump dismissing climate change. On the 6 November 2012, he tweeted that ‘The concept of global warning was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive’. Fifteen months later, in a tweet on 28 January 2014, he put it this way: ‘give me clean, beautiful and healthy air – not the same old climate change (global warming) bullshit! I am tired of hearing this nonsense’.

Trump was actually saying that what had been established on scientific grounds is merely ‘bullshit’. This tweet is a deliberate attempt to delegitimize scientific findings and research by appealing to emotions. Trump was threatened by the truth of climate change; therefore he dismissed climate change by denying its truth.

Similarly Trump dismisses the truth of his defeat last November and appeals to the emotions of his supporters to deny he lost the election.

How will truth fare in 2021? I find it hard to envisage a situation where truth makes a comeback. It is not going to be easy.

As Matthew D’Ancona puts it in his short but enlightening book on post truth – ‘Post Truth: the new war on truth and how to fight back’, truth “is discovered not distributed, it is an ideal to be pursued not an entitlement to be lazily expected. Our demands as citizens to be told the truth must be tempered by reason but not tamed by complacency.”

I will not be surprised if emotions will keep running the show in 2021.

Tories and Christian Democrats

A recent opinion piece in The Charlemagne column of The Economist takes a look at the differences between the British Conservatives and the European Christian Democrats.

Few people were surprised when David Cameron, running for the leadership of the Conservatives in Britain promised to leave the EPP. The EPP are all for more European integration while the British Tories never understood Christian Democracy. The pledge helped David Cameron win the leadership race.

The fundamental split between Conservatives and Christian Democrats eventually led to Brexit.

Conservatives believe the nation-state should be at the centre of politics while Christian Democrats are deeply suspicious of the nation-state, having experienced the Hitler, Mussolini and Franco regimes. Christian Democrats believe in the diffusion of power to the lowest level possible – hence subsidiarity.

The columnist argues that the long Brexit negotiations were not the result of technical wrangling but the result of a clash between the Conservative’s and the Christian Democrat’s view of the state.

Speaking of Brexit, I cannot but admire the subtlety of the decision made by the Irish Republic to the effect that the Irish government will fund Erasmus+ grants for students from Northern Ireland so that they can continue to participate in Europe’s student exchange programme, after the United Kingdom pulls out of the scheme.

The move by the Irish government came after Boris Johnson said that the UK would no longer participate in the popular programme from 2021, following the end of the Brexit transition period.

The result is that Irish students from Northern Ireland will feel grateful to Ireland rather than to Britain for their pan-European experiences.

This has important long term political effects.