#29 On post-truth politics

Dear Mat,

This is the letter where I’ve had the least to disagree with so I’ll expand on something you wrote: “Many would disagree but I think truth is alive and well in our civilisation”. Amen. Talk of fake news and post-truth politics seems crazy to me. When the fuck was the golden age when there was no propaganda, misinformation, spin, or lies?

I find that on this point reading about WWII and totalitarianism is always a good refresher. Indeed, sometimes I think that the stuff I was reading when I was 17 pretty much locked-in a lot of how I see the world, which is unusual and disappointing. Back then I studied Stalin in history class and read the kinds of things one is told to read by English teachers when one is 17. Actually, because I’ve been keeping a reading log since I can remember, I can consult the record and tell you exactly what I read ages 15–17. Titles include: Brave New WorldCatch-22, Kafka’s The Trial, Camus’s l’EtrangerAnimal Farm & Nineteen Eighty-Four, Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan DenisovichLord of the Flies and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. A whole shelf of mid-twentieth century novels soaked in the horrors of communism and nazism: cynical, bleak, existential explorations of inhumanity and the dangers of conformity. I guess this kind of inoculated me against any bullshit utopianism and balanced out my innate optimism.

Most people are forced to read some of these books in high school, yet they still seem to think that a free election fought mainly on economic issues — even though a semi-functional conman won it — somehow marks a turn towards post-truth or the death of democracy. I guess it’s good in a way. If people are this appalled by a leader telling lies, it will probably mean they’re inoculated against worse outrages. But I wonder what they would think if they ever read about this spooky thing called the the Third Reich?

Lately I find my super-cynical (realistic) view of human nature seems a bit out of whack with political debates. I’m all about creating systems that are smarter and more reliable than us fallible, biddable individuals. I basically think that given a set of conducive circumstances, anyone could be a monster. That’s not depressing. The corollary is that if the institutional structures are right, anyone can be nudged into doing good too. People get freaked out because everyone plays that game of thinking, “What would I have done in Nazi Germany?” They worry that they could have been the ones shovelling bodies into crematoria. Well, they could have been. I could have been. The trick is to make it so the conditions that precipitate those actions don’t exist.

Liberal democracy does a pretty good job. But what’s the next step? Is there a further reform that can be done for the 21st century to prevent people from lapsing into tyrannical habits? A way to ratchet up the minimums of civilised behaviour? Speaking as a former English teacher, I can tell you that a thing guaranteed not to work is getting kids to read George Orwell books.

Incidentally, I have to recognise another thing from your last letter. I thought your summaries of what should be the targets of satire on the left and the right were fantastic; probably better than what we spent weeks on with the manifesto. These should be carved on stone tablets:

On the left satire works best when it’s against the weak. Pointing out that sometimes the weak are complicit in their weakness. Pointing out that justice for an individual can mean injustice for many. Pointing out that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Pointing out that sometimes being kind is being cruel.

On the right it’s most powerful against the ignorant. Pointing out that just because something was done in the past doesn’t mean it’s right. Pointing out that the divinity of the individual is also the divinity of a stranger. Pointing out that scientific facts can mean what you think is wrong. Pointing out that sometimes being cruel is being cruel.



PS Just realised I forgot to make my original point. Post-truth is not the real worry. The worry is people being thinking that worse things can’t happen given the right circumstances. I just read Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny:  Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. It’s the refresher I was alluding to. 120 pages. Good stuff. The real point is to vigilantly maintain the integrity of democratic institutions and the rule of law. Trump does present a threat on these fronts. That’s where people’s attention should be, not his gaffes, hypocrisy, or doublespeak.