POST-TRUTH POLITICS AND THE WAR ON INTELLECT

by Robyn Banks

Does it follow that I reject all authority? Far from me such a thought. In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or engineer.”- Mikhail Bakunin

There’s a new buzzword in the air. We are now living, it is claimed, in a post-factual or post-truth society, where facts no longer matter to the general public. At face value it seems like a bizarre claim. But while politicians and the media have always lied to the public, if you consider the audacity of the lies of the last decade in contrast to the sheer number of tools available to us to find out the truth, you begin to see the point.

Take, for example, Cameron’s 2013 claim that “We’re paying down the national debt”, even as debt soared. Or Osbornes frequent referencing to the past tense in statements such as “When I became Chancellor, debt was piling up”, not so subtly insinuating that the problem had been solved. Polls a year earlier showed that only 6% of the British public realised that debt was still rising, so it’s not surprising that few were concerned. Meanwhile, a conversation about whether borrowing at a time of low growth is even necessarily a problem has been entirely absent from the British public sphere. Even now, seven years after the dawn of coalition cuts in 2010, it’s not uncommon to hear austerity lauded as a “tough choice”. It would seem that, as a nation, we still don’t know our debt from our deficit (for help with that, see here.)

This “post-fact” manner of going about things seemed to reach a peak last year, with Gove announcing that the British public were “fed up with experts” and even comparing them to Nazis, (and, remember, this was before Trump was elected and Godwin’s law was officially repealed), and a Trump surrogate on American television declaring fact-checking to be an “out of touch, elitist, media type thing”. The problem is not just evident in the blatant lies told by politicians and the media and swallowed half-heartedly by us, the public- something which has gone on for most of history, -but in the spinning of powerful narratives which maintain their hold even when performatively contradicting themselves.

One such example could be the many public figures who have lamented the loss of their free speech across the pages of national newspapers, neatly distracting us from the areas in which our freedoms really are being curtailed. An almost perfectly suited piece of evidence arose this week in several articles bemoaning the audacity of SOAS students’ recent rejection of curriculum philosophy: one article in particular stated that students wanted to remove the “founding fathers of western philosophy” from their syllabus “simply because they were white”, before revealing the shocking news that students from the London School of Oriental and African Studies felt that they should be allowed to direct a majority of their studies towards philosophers from Africa and Asia. The Sun deemed this idea “Barmy” and further inflated the story by declaring Plato and Aristotle “banned”.

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Stephen Collins, The Guardian

any narrative which inherently links the working class to lower intelligence levels and suggests we need our information simplified is a classist narrative.

It’s not only that the truth doesn’t matter much anymore, it’s that the truth is now “elitist”. Frequently, the surprise results of Brexit and Trump’s victory have been framed as some kind of rebellion against political or cosmopolitan elites, and soul-searching on the part of academics and “experts” as to why their messages of evidence based reasoning were so widely rejected have led many to the conclusion that their arguments were somehow inaccessible, a point of view to which I cannot subscribe. This rhetoric divides the west in to two distinct groups- the in-touch, down to earth, under educated and slightly racist working class and the out of touch, well educated, liberal elites who patronise them, and any narrative which inherently links the working class to lower intelligence levels and suggests we need our information simplified is a classist narrative.

This wave of post-truth politics at times resembles the anti-intellectualism of fascism, the latter often understood as a populist rebellion against political elites. Historian Fedja Buric writes that “Fascism promised people deliverance from politics.  Fascism was not just different type of politics, but anti-politics.  On the post-WWI ruins of the Enlightenment beliefs in progress and essential human goodness, Fascism embraced emotion over reason, action over politics.” Both the Leave campaign and Trump’s harnessing of populist nationalist sentiment strike an eerie chord.

At other times, it seems to bear resemblance to the ‘politics of confusion’ practiced by Russian adviser to Putin, Vladislav Surkov. Inspired by his interest in post modern bohemian art, he successfully manipulates all sides of Russian political debate until the population become so confused that the facts no longer matter, and any opposition is in a constant state of rumour control and disarray. It is to date an effective means of population control. Both systems work to maintain power over a populace through the obfuscation of truth from the masses. Both systems function to divide and rule.

Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked Magazine, wrote of the post-truth theory: “It has a quasi-religious feel, propagating the idea that there is an already existing truth to which We, good people, have access, and which They, bad people, have dared to deny.” Pomerantsev in Granta magazine suggested that “There is some sort of teenage joy in throwing off the weight of facts – those heavy symbols of education and authority, reminders of our place and limitations”. And while it is true that the power of knowledge has for too long been wielded by the wealthy elites as a tool of oppression, there is such a thing as objective fact. As Brian Cox, responding to Gove’s comment about experts, said “Being an expert does not mean that you are someone with a vested interest in something; it means you spend your life studying something. You’re not necessarily right – but you’re more likely to be right than someone who’s not spent their life studying it.”

At a time when the internet gives us the possibility of a vast democratisation of knowledge, and the ranks of university students from working class backgrounds swell, it seems self-sabotaging to declare scholasticism and factual evidence “elitist” and not for us. Our ability to access more information than ever before should be leading us towards a more enlightened, equal and informed society, not a war of dubious information. While knowledge, and participation in all of the public sphere, must be democratised and made accessible to all, it would be a shame to let anti-elitist sentiment become anti-intellectual sentiment. To do so would be to watch any semblance of a working class movement, which may yet develop from the last year’s political disasters, die before taking flight.

Header image: Martin Shovel

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