This article is part of an ongoing series from the Post-Truth Initiative, a Strategic Research Excellence Initiative at the University of Sydney. The series examines today’s post-truth problem in public discourse: the thriving economy of lies, bullshit and propaganda that threatens rational discourse and policy.
The project brings together scholars of media and communications, government and international relations, physics, philosophy, linguistics, and medicine, and is affiliated with the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC), the Sydney Environment Institute and the Sydney Democracy Network.
Is Donald Trump post-truth, post-modern or simply preposterous? What started as an academic contretemps erupted into a media spasm, and escalated into political warfare, has now reached impeachable levels of high crimes and misdemeanours.
How did we get here? The question of truth first became weaponised in the culture wars of the 2016 US presidential campaign. The Oxford Dictionaries fired the shot heard around the infosphere when it announced its Word of the Year was “post-truth”:
… relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
The Oxford Dictionaries took pains to distinguish the word from a particular event or assertion (like post-war or truthiness) to better identify the character of an age (like post-national or post-racial). Among all the “posts” mentioned in the lengthy press release, “post-modern” never gets a nod.
This word has no meaning; use it as often as possible.
No matter. Where semioticians fear to tread, pundits and academics rushed in, linking post-truth to post-modernists, post-positivists, post-structuralists or any other “postie” who bore the cursed sign of relativism.
Playing the philosophical blame game
I witnessed more than a few scholars making these links at the 2017 annual meeting of the International Studies Association (ISA) in Baltimore. The meeting came just weeks after Trump’s executive order limiting entry from seven Muslim-majority countries into the US.
Trump’s post-truth directive ignored the alternative facts that the terrorists in the recent rash of attacks had come from countries not on the list; that extensive vetting was already in place; and that an American was a thousand times more likely to be killed by a criminal than a terrorist.
It was no small irony that the protests and debates swirling around Trump helped make this ISA meeting one of the best. Among many noteworthy moments, the distinguished scholar roundtable for William E. Connolly did a good demo job on the post-truth/modern mash-up.
Political scientists who live by the causal code were faulted for being overly casual about the means of transmission by which post-modern ideas suddenly came to infect Trump, his fellow travellers and the political habitus. Since Trump does not seem to read continental philosophy – or books in general – Steve Bannon, his éminence grise (who looks greyer as his eminence diminishes), took most of the blame.
But the best evidence dug up by the paper of record was a 2014 speech by Bannon at a Vatican conference in which he lauds Italian proto-fascist Julius Evola.
Since Evola shares with Nietzsche a critique of modernity, this clearly makes Bannon a fellow post-modernist/truthist. No matter that Bannon cites pre-modernist sources like Sun Tzu and the Bible as his texts of choice for the civilisational battle (with fellow holy crusader Vlad Putin) to save “the Judeo-Christian West”.
Connolly et al summarily dismissed the charge of relativism as “untimely” – and silly.
Relativism, Nietzsche’s “breath of empty space”, is not some malignant creation of post-truth philosophers or politicians; it presents as a historical condition of diverse origins, beginning with the death of God and other adjudicators and executors of a universal or transcendental truth. This might constitute a repudiation of philosophical realism (based on a correspondence theory of the truth), but Nietzsche did not reject physical realism (based on empirical facts) or political realism (based on contestable judgments).
Indeed, Nietzsche scorned the “coward before reality … [who] flees into the ideal”. He openly expressed his preference for realists such as Thucydides and Machiavelli over the likes of Plato and Hegel.
Continental philosophers influenced by Nietzsche (Heidegger and Schmitt notwithstanding) were less concerned with the dangers of relativism than with metaphysical truths deemed above and beyond human critique.
One would think, if thinking clearly, that the epistemic as well as political certitudes preceding and engendering two world wars, the Cold War, the global “war on terror” and the war on Islam were more pernicious than the cosmopolitanism, subjectivism and relativism that putatively taint all things post-truth/modern.
Beware easy post-truth finger-pointing
The takeaway from the roundtable was that the identification of a historical or social condition should not be confused with endorsement of an epistemological or political doctrine.
Tarring the post-truthist/modernist with the claim “all is permitted” or “there is no truth” makes for a nice sound bite but does violence to a sophisticated argument for subjecting all truth-claims to more rigorous forms of verification. Invoking a transcendental, universal or objective authority to resolve contradicting stories or disputable facts is not sufficient.
Such certainty is ahistorical: the “self-evident truths” of America’s founding fathers, based on first principles of natural law and sanctified by heavenly commandments, can, fortunately for humanity, prove to be untrue; otherwise slaves would still be slaves, women would not have the vote, etc.
What is notably missing from the narcissism of Trump and solipsism of his fellow Truthers is any sense of ethical responsibility towards ways of seeing or being in the world that differ from their own. An ethics that begins in response to relativism necessarily entails a mutual recognition – rather than the eradication or assimilation – of difference and otherness.
This kind of ethics cannot be delivered by command from above or by invocation of universal principles; it emerges as a condition of co-existence among those who differ on such matters as the truth.
Other post-truth/modern encounters on ISA panels, at hotel bars and even a few street-side produced new questions. Why were so many scholars, who put a premium on material or structural explanations for global events, now eager to infer such power upon ideas, especially when they emanated from a marginal school of thought like post-modernism?
Why were so many of these same scholars willing to accept “slam-dunk” facts about war crimes and WMDs in the run-up to the Iraq War? To form unholy alliances in support of invasions that spawned many second- and third-order global crises, including the rise of ISIS and the nationalist fevers that fanned Trump’s victory?
If, as the exculpatory refrain goes, they only knew then what they know now. But a purblind adherence to rationalism and positive evidence that excludes affective or cognitive preferences keeps us from knowing the truth, both then and now.
How much history is needed, from Vietnam to Watergate to Iran-Contra to the Iraq War, to show that “fake news”, “alternative facts” and “post-truths” weren’t born of continental philosophy? That disproving a lie is no substitute for creating a counter-narrative? That more than sweet reason is needed to unmask false consciousness?
By the end of the ISA meeting, a kind of déjà vu had set in: had we not witnessed this conflation before, of diagnosis and disease? Where Baudrillard’s precession of simulation was deemed responsible for the Gulf War; Foucault’s critical regard of surveillance for the rise of Big Brother; Virilio’s elevation of pace over space for the erosion of the sovereign state; and Derrida’s insistence that nothing exists outside the text for everything else – except Nazism, which was Nietzsche’s fault.
A duty to re-enter the fray
Et voilà, it came to me on the long flight back to Australia. Post-truthists/modernists must re-enter the political fray, not only because they are best equipped to counter the simulations, surveillance, speed and signs of Trump and his followers.
We need to embrace rather than run from the “post-truth” debate because ideas, discourses and methods might not define the truth but they do matter in politics.
We need to challenge the political science “quants” whose polls got it so wrong, giving Bernie Sanders supporters and other independents the excuse to maintain political purity by not voting.
We need to challenge the neoliberals whose promotion of the idea of globalisation helped produce the economic inequalities and cultural resentments that “primed the pump”, as Trump would say, for his victory.
Most importantly, we must repudiate the petty narcissism of attacking those closest on the political as well as epistemic spectrum, and form a real popular front against the faux populism of Trump and the neofundamentalism of Mike Pence that is likely to follow Trump’s fall from power.
We must, in other words, become post-post-truth.
This article draws on the author’s opening comments from the Global Forum on Peace and Security under Uncertainty, which is sponsored by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Sydney and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. A short video about the global forum is available on the Centre for International Security Studies (CISS) website and below. Full panel recordings will be available on the Project Q website.
You can read other pieces in the post-truth series here.
The Democracy Futures series is a joint global initiative between The Conversation and the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.