Monday, December 12, 2016

Fears of a post-truth planet (part one)

Annette Lemieux, Truth (1989)


I'll own up to it. During the 2012 presidential campaign, I was all confidence that the only fitting response to Mitt Romney's pronouncing Russia the United States' "number one geopolitical foe" was laughter, served with as much derision as possible.

"Please. Cold War's over, Mitt," I said (probably to the radio). "Russia hasn't had its shit remotely together in decades. Get real."

So: mea culpa. Mitt Romney was right—or at least prescient. It's doubtful he could have guessed exactly how and with what Russia would attempt to undermine America four years later, but to his credit, he saw something was brewing.

The return of an antagonistic, gives-no-fucks Russia might be nostalgic for some people. For almost five decades the USSR was the perfect foil to the US of A. After its collapse, the hawkish paranoiacs still had Iraq, Al-Qaeda, and Barack Obama to fear and despise, but it just wasn't the same. None of them exuded the same cunning, implacable menace as the Ruskies. I imagine our nationalistic seniors feel about the Cold War the same way I do about the first season of The Flash. It's hard to replace a good villain.

Well, now Russia's back—only I suspect that the most perfervid anticommunists from back in the day probably voted for Trump, and we all know how he feels about Vladmir Putin, and how Putin feels about him. So maybe the Ruskies aren't so bad after all, right? Not like those murdering, raping Mexicans, anyway.

God, the world really has gone topsy fucking turvy. 

I started typing this post before the Washington Post disclosed the CIA's assessment of Russian interference in the election—back when it was still assumed that Russia's aim was disinformation for its own sake, and not necessarily the conversion of Putin's personal preference into electoral leverage—but the point I wished to make still holds true: I'm far less disturbed by Russia's (purported) goals than by the weapons they've employed to achieve them, and by the toxic fallout they're releasing into our discursive ecosystem.

What's always frightened most about the links between the Trump campaign and Putin has been the overlap in philosophies between the state-backed Russian news agencies and the howling wind-tunnel of right-wing media. (Insert lazy political cartoon of a wind tunnel, where the giant fan has three blades labeled "Fox News," "talk radio" and "r/TheDonald.")

In September, the perennially astute Economist issued some comments on the crystallization of the new post-truth reality
A case in point is the recent speculation about the health of Mrs Clinton. It started with videos purporting to show Mrs Clinton suffering from seizures, which garnered millions of views online. Breitbart News, an “alt-right” web publisher that gleefully supports Mr Trump——Stephen Bannon, the site’s boss, took over as the Trump campaign’s “chief executive officer” last month——picked up the story. “I’m not saying that, you know, she had a stroke or anything like that, but this is not the woman we’re used to seeing,” Mr Bannon said. Mr Trump mentioned Mrs Clinton’s health in a campaign speech. Rudy Giuliani, a former mayor of New York, urged people to look for videos on the internet that support the speculation. The Clinton campaign slammed what it calls “deranged conspiracy theories”, but doubts are spreading and the backfire effect is in full swing.

Such tactics would make Dmitry Kiselyov proud. “The age of neutral journalism has passed,” the Kremlin’s propagandist-in-chief recently said in an interview. “It is impossible because what you select from the huge sea of information is already subjective.” The Russian government and its media, such as Rossiya Segodnya, an international news agency run by Mr Kiselyov, produce a steady stream of falsehoods, much like fake-news sites in the West. The Kremlin deploys armies of “trolls” to fight on its behalf in Western comment sections and Twitter feeds (see article). Its minions have set up thousands of social-media “bots” and other spamming weapons to drown out other content.

“Information glut is the new censorship,” says Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina, adding that other governments are now employing similar tactics.
Another piece from October argues that, despite the Kremlin's outright preference for Trump, Russia is not waging a traditional propaganda campaign: this isn't anything like distributing bibles in North Korea or broadcasting pro-democracy radio programs into Soviet satellites.
Russia does not pretend to offer the world an attractive ideology or vision. Instead its propaganda aims to discredit and erode universal liberal values by nurturing the idea that the West is just as corrupt as Russia, and that its political system is just as rigged. It wants to create a divided West that has lost faith in its ability to shape the world.
When all institutions come to be regarded as corrupt, cracks open up across the polity. When all information is impugned as propaganda, when the press is seen to be motivated by an agenda rather than a duty to find, report, and clarify facts, who benefits? Autocrats and oligarchs. Civil debate is a keystone of democracy, and debate is impossible when parties can't even agree on what's actually real.

Here's the thing: Fox News and Breitbart readers know their news sources are biased. But they also believe it's no less biased than NPR, CNN, The New York Times, etc. When all journalism is motivated by an agenda, the best choice, they believe, is to subscribe to the source with the correct bias. The pro-America, pro-Trump kind of bias.

The ethos of Russian journalism is taking root in the West.


I've got to hand it to Teen Vogue: I never thought I'd have any reason to read Teen Vogue, much less praise it for having the editorial eggs to say what urgently needs to be said: "Donald Trump is gaslighting America."
At the hands of Trump, facts have become interchangeable with opinions, blinding us into arguing amongst ourselves, as our very reality is called into question.

There is a long list of receipts when it comes to Trump's lies. With the help of PolitiFact, clear-cut examples of deception include Trump saying that he watched thousands of people cheering on 9/11 in Jersey City (police say there's no evidence of this), that the Mexican government forces immigrants into the U.S. (no evidence), that there are "30 or 34 million" immigrants in this country (there are 10 or 11 million), that he never supported the Iraq War (he told Howard Stern he did), that the unemployment rate is as high as "42 percent" (the highest reported rate is 16.4 percent), that the U.S. is the highest taxed country in the world (not true based on any metric of consideration), that crime is on the rise (it's falling, and has been for decades), and too many other things to list here because the whole tactic is to clog the drain with an indecipherable mass of toxic waste. The gas lighting part comes in when the fictions are disputed by the media, and Trump doubles down on his lies, before painting himself as a victim of unfair coverage, sometimes even threatening to revoke access.

Trump has repeatedly attempted to undermine the press, including such well-respected publications as the New York Times. He has disseminated a wealth of unsubstantiated attacks on the media, though this baseless tweet from April pretty much sums it all up, "How bad is the New York Times -- the most inaccurate coverage constantly. Always trying to belittle. Paper has lost its way!"
As a candidate, Trump's gas lighting was manipulative, as President-elect it is a deliberate attempt to destabilize journalism as a check on the power of government.
Over the last few days I've found a new appreciation of just how terrifyingly effective gaslighting tactics can be.

After the Washington Post reported the CIA's claims of Russian interference and its aims, I hopped from news site to news site, and scrolled through the trending hashtags on Twitter, just to see if the story was catching on. This is a really big deal, I thought. We need to be talking about this. We need to get to the bottom of this. We must light a fire under our legislators' asses and make them do the responsible thing.

There were two responses to the Post's revelations throughout the noosphere: there was the liberal wailing and gnashing of teeth, of course; and there was a blizzard of accusations against the Post for peddling "fake news."

Go to Twitter and run a search on "fakenews." I can wait.

It's astonishing: for the last few months, the so-called MSM has called attention to the brazen falsehoods belched out by Candidate and now President-Elect Trump, and to the epidemic of absolutely bullshit right-wing clickbait news circulating the web. The MAGA crowd's coordinated response is to return fire by thumbing its nose and saying "I know you are, but what am I?"

Notice some of the recurring themes in the #fakenews tweets: the Post's omission of its sources in the CIA story means that it's all speculative baloney; the Post royally fucked up its citation of PropOrNot in its November 24 article on Russian propaganda, which proves what a slipshod paper it is; the whole thing is just a tantrum thrown by the electoral losers to smear the winners; the leaks only served to inform the public of Hilary Clinton and the DNC being in bed together; Wikileaks and Assange swear that the leaks did not come from a Russian source; the MSM is the real source of fake news; look at these videos of pundits recking other pundits who're buying into the Post's lies; Podesta, Podesta, Pizzagate, Clinton Foundation; the CIA was wrong about WMDs and should not be trusted now; the allegations of an RNC hack are more lies from a crooked MSM; stupid crying loser liberals are complaining about (fake) Russian interference when the true dezinformatsiya was perpetrated by the pro-Establishment anti-Trump MSM; and so on and on and on and on.

After the Post story broke, I stayed up much later than I should have, keeping track of the conversation. This took me spelunking into the comments sections and tweet threads, where I spent at least a couple of hours. I had a very hard time sleeping that night.

When you're told you're wrong enough times, by enough people, you begin to wonder if they're right.

Maybe this is all just much ado about nothing; maybe the Post really is just vacuum-pumping hot air into a non-story to shore up readers; maybe Wikileaks and Glenn Greenwald are right, maybe the CIA is simply corrupt and incompetent, maybe every Democrat is just as corrupt as every Republican, maybe the New York Times doesn't know what it's talking about, I mean look how wrong they were about Trump's chances of victory; maybe all of these people aren't trolls, look how many of them there are, and they all seem so damn sure of themselves, what if I'm the one succumbing to a complacent faith in a news source that validates my own beliefs instead of telling me the truth?

Here we see the Economist's point exemplified: this is why Russia bankrolls an army of internet trolls. Not only is the public unable to get its facts straight; not only does a nakedly propagandist narrative receive a tremendous signal boost; but those people on one side of an issue—in this case, the people who voted against Putin's candidate of choice—are pressured as through the turning of an inexorable screw into doubting themselves, their allies, and the institutions (namely the press) that really do have the public good in mind.

It's going to get worse before it gets better.


Speaking of conflicting stories: over the last couple days I've been perusing a few essays and blog posts making the case that postmodern theory, unwittingly or otherwise, shares more of its DNA with fascism than the academy would like to acknowledge. Most of the places where these pieces appear are conservative-leaning sites.

What am I to think of this? Are the essays inherently flawed? Are their rightward authors regressive fools, ipso facto? Am I better off just hitting the back button on my browser and going to one of my familiar safe places, like The New Yorker or The Baffler?

More toxic fallout, more discursive degeneration. How am I to know when someone on the other side of the fence isn't arguing in bad faith? Who benefits from the reifying of ideological fortifications? The answer is the same as it was above.

The articles I'm reading point to the purportedly fascistic ideas underpinning the philosophical foundations of postmodernism (Heidegger and De Man in particular are called out) and criticize the academic left for its wanton "anti-rational progressivism," aka "cultural Marxism:"
To the extent that the postmodernist worldview can be summed up, it says narrative is the only access people have to reality, and people in power control narrative. Extreme counter-narrative on behalf of social justice is no vice, to rephrase Goldwater, because the ultimate veracity of those facts will always lie behind a veil of interpretations. There are not true and false observations, only narratives that advance human progress—defined on the progressive template—and narratives that resist it. ....

The extremely subjective if not downright solipsistic worldview, combined with an inclination to cruelty, makes contemporary postmodernism compatible with two of the Three Faces of Fascism as described by the recently passed Ernst Nolte: hostility to bourgeois values, and what he called “resistance to transcendence,” transcendence in this case describing the increase of freedom via individualism and modernity.

Hence the pomofascist, or postmodernist fascist: someone with a PhD in the postmodern humanities, indifferent to individual rights, championing the collective good by authority of self-appointment, and disdainful of truth. The pomofascist seeks to turn history and reason upside-down so it flatters progressive causes, however many lies of omission or commission it takes.
Well, insofar as I lament the counterproductive excesses of the left, I'm not inclined to say this is complete bullshit. When I read Mussolini's "The Doctrine of Fascism," I can't say declarations like "no action is exempt from moral judgment" don't bring Tumblr and Salon to mind.

But if the allegations are true, and if postmodernism is the bastard child of fascism, it shouldn't come as any surprise that it is wielded much more competently and dangerously in the hands of the right wing.

A lengthy excerpt from a Post story that ran on December 2:
On live radio Wednesday morning, Scottie Nell Hughes sounded breezy as she drove a stake into the heart of knowable reality:

“There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, of facts,” she declared on “The Diane Rehm Show.

Hughes, a frequent surrogate for President-elect Donald Trump and a paid commentator for CNN during the campaign, kept defending that assertion, although not with much clarity of expression. Rehm had pressed her about Trump’s recent evidence-free assertion on Twitter that he, not Hillary Clinton, would have won the popular vote if millions of immigrants had not voted illegally. ....

What matters now, Hughes argued, is not whether his fraud claim is true. No, what matters is who believes it.

“Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd, a large——a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some——in his——amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there’s no facts to back it up.” ....

[A]t a high-profile event the next evening, two other Trump surrogates echoed this sentiment. Ousted Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, speaking during an election post-mortem at Harvard University, blamed journalists for——yes——believing what his candidate said.

“You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally,” said Lewandowski, who was another ill-advised CNN hire. “The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes——when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar——you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.” ....

When CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway about the same election-fraud claim discussed above——specifically, whether disseminating misinformation was “presidential”——it was clear that she and Hughes got the same memo.
“He’s the president-elect, so that’s presidential behavior,” Conway said, using mind-bending pseudo-logic, reminiscent of the Nixonian “When the president does it, that means that it’s not illegal.”
Sometime last week, I passed a tweet citing some remarks from Karl Rove that seem even more relevant and terrifying today than in the context of a cavalier neoconservative administration. I can't find the original tweet, but the quote is on the Wikipedia article page for "reality-based community." The author is Ron Suskind; the "aide" referred to is Rove:
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that realityjudiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors...and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
I had a crash course in postmodern theory during my college days. We read Saussure, Derrida, Baudrillard, Foucault, and the rest. We learned about the unmooring of truth from facts, of facts from reality, of reality from truth. It was explained to us that everything is conceptual artifice, words aren't reflective of the world but the determinant of it, there is no absolute continuum of history but rather concurrent and contradictory narratives about history, and so on, ad vertiginum. Our professor was a leftie; all of us students were lefties; we believed that understanding these concepts empowered us to perceive and dismantle oppression.

It would be really funny, really horribly funny, if the left has been sharpening the right's weapons for it all this time.

It boggles the mind that Trump—a walking tonsil stone who plays a scumbag capitalist on and off TV and has thus far demonstrated himself as capable as navigating abstraction as a cockatoo—could be one to harness and wield such potent conceptual voodoo as we're seeing today. I don't think he needs to understand: he's like Superboy Prime, who didn't require any sort of working knowledge of transdimensional physics in order to alter reality. All Prime had to do was what came natural to him, and punch really hard. Trump just has to speak really emphatically, and the continuity of history is reshuffled. So far, all we can do is try to keep up well enough to maintain our footing. Nothing else seems to work.

It's not just going to be a long four years. I don't know how much time will have to pass and what has to happen before reality concresces again, before the wildly divergent, mutually exclusive, and individually unimpeachable narratives of our divided nation somehow arrive at a confluence. I doubt it will be very soon—especially now that the ascendent neo-nationalists and the radical left both agree that emotion is equivalent to reason, and objectivity is a fiction imposed by the exercise of political power. That genie's not going back into its bottle without one hell of a fight.


  1. Not sure if you've read (or read about) Scott Adams's--of Dilbert fame--blog. Forget gaslighting. Forget subtly attempting to make people question their experience of reality by slightly manipulating measurable data. The guy outright tells his followers (rabid pro-Trumpers) "By nature, the human being is not equipped to perceive reality. As such, all we can 'reality' and 'facts' may very well be wrong, and when not wrong, it doesn't matter, anyway." And then proceeds to preach to them his own version of reality, one that is allowed exclusively to him thanks to his background as a "trained hypnotist" (a phrase that he parrots constantly, actually lending credence to the claim).

    In Adams's reality, Trump is an astute but benevolent "Master Persuader", a man of such incredible insight on the human condition, that each word that comes out of his mouth and every controversial decision is carefully crafted to provoke a reaction that can be manipulated into a good thing. So he's not racist or sexist; he merely said things that sounded racist and sexist. His followers all (self-congratulatory) smart people would be able to dismiss those statements as such, while he would also gain the vote of the actually racist and sexist. Then, once president, he'd be able to clarify, which not only would result in non-sexist/racist policies, but also would help sexist and racist people improve their thinking.

    In this way, he's almost daily not only justified every eyebrow-raising statement or decision, he's also twisted them into something undeniably good thanks to the "Master Persuader Filter". Climate change denial? "Pfft, you all surely know how scientists and experts get things wrong all the time, so their claims are, by principle, suspect. Now, I'm no scientist, but I can tell you that if someone is trying to use fear as an argument, they are trying to manipulate you for their own agenda, and nothing causes more fear that apocalyptic climate change." And so on.

    Basically he embodies everything you talked about in this post.

    1. Oh yes. I've always rather liked Dilbert, and the more I've seen of Scott Adams (interviews, his books, blog posts etc.) the more I've tried to divorce the comic from the creator in my mind.

      Someone I met about a year ago is a kind of Dilbert superfan; runs some sort of Dilbert clippings thing on Instagram and has hundreds of followers, etc. A few months ago she quit her job to work for the Clinton campaign. A couple of weeks ago I asked her how she feels about Scott Adams lately. She said she ONLY talks about his comic, and even though it was a text message I could tell she was clenching her teeth as she typed.

      Adams isn't really wrong about the human being not being equipped to perceive reality, though. But there's a difference between "human beings are incapable of directly experiencing all of the facts of the situation" and "the facts matter so little that they can be fudged as much as it serves men like me to fudge them."

      (Sorry for taking so long to answer all the time, by the way. I DO READ AND APPRECIATE FEEDBACK. My initial response is always "yeah!" so I like to sit down and think it over. Then I get up for a snack. Then I forget what I was thinking about, and it takes me a long while to get back on track.)

    2. For a while I did successfully divorce my enjoyment of Dilbert from its author too. However, the more I read his blog the more I gain an insight on the mind of the man and the more I start to notice how Dilbert itself is cynically, carefully constructed for effect and profit.

      While pretending to be biting white collar parody of the stupidity and inanity of the corporate system from the point of view of the abused employees, Adams himself embodies the very belief that keep such system afloat, being himself very similar to the bald CEO of his fictional corporation. Or when Dilbert himself is at his worst, a brilliant but contemptuous sociopath whose controversial statements are played for shits and giggles as social ineptitude, you are also seeing how Adams actually thinks.

      The man is indubitably clever and knows that "common people" likes to laugh at the rich and the smart (by thinking that they are dumb and anti-social, respectively), and he, a rich and smart man, gives them what they want, while becoming a bit richer and laughing to himself all the way to the bank.

      I myself have no opinion regarding whether humans have the ability to perceive reality or not but I believe that since we cannot not experience reality as humans, there's no point in refusing to call what we experience "reality". What's really rich in Adams's case is that after explaining to his followers why we allegedly cannot perceive reality, he conveniently establishes himself as the one who tells them what is the better way to think and act under those circumstances. Because he is a "trained hypnotist".