“There is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.”
Lets’ contrast a “Truth Era” that we were in to a “Post-Truth Era” that we are now in. Perhaps we can get a clearer picture of the present 2012 election than the media’s touting the election like a horserace provides.
Romney took the bit in his mouth and ran while Obama slogged in the backfield, or, Romney put his foot in his mouth all over Europe while Obama stayed “cool” back home, and so on. A sharp contrast of ideas was not forthcoming. Stump speeches, super-PAC messages, panic and havoc exhortations, crazed warnings and predictions went on as if rational elucidation was a bygone thing. A clash of bullshit, as philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt defined it, fills the stage, not the private and personal stage but the social and public one. This perhaps is our problem: we no longer need to talk collectively about anything because all matter is now settled in the private space of opinion, of a gated, online sharing. This state of affairs makes it very difficult for a commonly shared rationality and a “bi-partisan” search for truth. Plus, it’s hell on politics as this present election season demonstrates.
In a Truth Era, authority, whether it be reason, belief, or power, exists and can be pointed to as an arbiter that will settle a dispute, perhaps not for all but sufficiently to pronounce something as true and something as false. There exists some rule of judgment that has a decisive and determinate power to sway us one way or another. Once played, like a trump card, all players bend to its supremacy, its superiority. Truth may be elusive but method or faith or mystical epiphany or the imagination will reveal it.
The pursuit of truth may be like working on a puzzle, as a character in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane does, hoping by slowly adding pieces together that a clear picture will be revealed. The 20th modernism of Welles’ film displays the “through a glass darkly” difficulties of arriving at some universally acknowledged universal rule by which we could find truth. That sort of angst filled “the modern temper” but did not end the search. We can’t go on, Samuel Beckett tells us, we go on.
If we were yet in the first quarter of the 21st century either in an “enlightened” optimism, or, dark skepticism, I could begin to talk either with the assumption that I was laying down a trail the rational could follow, or, I was knocking down falsehoods found on that trail. None of that can any longer be done, nor was it ever done with anything more than our own belief and compliance that it could be done. History displays our various “reasons” for exterminating a native population, enslaving people of color, denying women a vote, exterminating Jews, dropping atomic bombs on civilians, for believing in WMDs in Iraq, and so on.
You could say that we now have deep faith that our own personal opinion, freely constructed, trumps all “authority. The notion of a “public” or “social” truth is what anyone should be seeking has given way to “personal” truths which one is not in any way compelled to share, except perhaps with chosen friends on “social” networks. What is exposed as false has also a very limited range, not going beyond a personal verdict. Once again, the need to find and obliterate falsehood in the public sphere, in the public arena, has disappeared.
You can see at once how difficult politics becomes in what I call this “post-truth” era. No party feels an urge to compromise principles and policies because there is no way in the popular mind that these can be exposed as wrong or bad. Truths and falsehoods easily revealed or over the course of time revealed give way to “narratives” that pursue only one thing: to appear more attractive and more compelling than an opposing narrative.
There is in the post-truth era no fear that some Solomon will make an authoritative pronouncement on a website revered by all. There is no fear that some political analyst revered by all will deconstruct the narrative in the media the next day. Fact checkers, “Reality” websites, “It Is What It Is” photos, statistics, polls, “objective history,” logic, Youtube videos, recordings, scholarly accounts, and so on are brought out in support of both sides of any argument without either side landing a knock-out punch.
You can’t knock out truth stories because they spin toward an audience the way pop culture does. People like this or that story because they see it as mirroring their own, as being in fact a confirmation of their own opinions. “It Is What It Is” becomes “It Is What I Choose and Know It To Be.” Once again, this has always been the case. Even though there are repeated assertions of Res ipsa loquitur: “the thing itself speaks,” the fact remains that we have done the talking. We enclose the world in narratives, see “the thing itself” in a mediated or buffer zone of our own making.
What is different in the post-truth era is that both our confidence in reaching “the thing itself” as well as our skepticism in being able to do this have vanished as if they never existed. Now in a post-truth era what anything may be in the world outside what we speak of and how we speak of it has no significance. Our post-truth attitude now is that if there are no apps for it, it still may exist but I personally don’t care. We personally choose things to be.
Thusly, presidential candidates vie for presence in human life-worlds that may ignore so much that they court disaster, or are so dangerously bigoted and full of hate that society is imperiled. Most disastrously in close elections is the drive to fit into the life-worlds of the undecided, or those who predominantly give no thought to politics and the problems it seeks to resolve on behalf of all of us. But the political goal is to fit into more of these skewered and unthinking worlds than your opponent.
Barack Obama achieved celebrity status in the 2008 election, not because his credentials superlatively impressed rational and empirical reviews, or, because he displayed a deconstructive adeptness in exposing falsehood. He reached celebrity status by presenting a narrative of self and vision that was in sync with an overwhelming majority of voters.
We are not speaking of a truth search meshing with a populace truth search. We are speaking of the power of a narrative of change to relocate a public politics and social discourse regarding politics into the very narrow confines of personal choice, a politics of social networking with one’s friends. This idea of change could only emerge in a post-truth era. Get out of Washington DC and jump to Facebook, or, better yet, an app on a Smartphone.
President Obama is to some extent both an Enlightenment thinker and a skeptical 20th century modernist thinker and therefore very wary of post-truth thinking. A man deeply committed to the power of reason will hope to change fractious dispute into a Hegelian synthesis acceptable to all. That is not the sort of change those who made him a celebrity were looking for. Theirs was a clearly thoughtless hope for change. And while Obama does not have disdain for this thoughtless populace, although he seems to now have evidence justifying this as well as evidence that reason cannot reach those who axiomatically pursue profit, he is periodically both heated and frozen as a politician, a notable oddity. He does have a persistent disdain, however, for the shapechanger strategies of Mitt Romney, perhaps because Mitt Romney plays totally on the post-truth chessboard.
Obama’s obvious disdain for Romney was displayed in the first debate and, fascinatingly, the reasons for that disdain were confirmed in all three debates. Obama in the second and third debate revved himself up to take the man seriously, to rebut narratives that Romney had adopted for the debate. He did so by repeatedly pointing out that what Romney was saying was either not true or in contradiction to what he had previously said. Obama was both relying on the viewers, the American people, to track down both falsehoods and contradictions. Romney, in a staggering boldness, advised the same people to track down the truth and consistency of what he was saying.
But the boldness should not be staggering in our post-truth era, in an era in which the debates were celebrity competitions in the American Idol mold. Romney would float the narrative that would work at that moment, would turn back Obama’s volleys with narratives that refused facts and evidence, knowing that what mattered was the dramatic intensity of his performance. Obama was not so much lackadaisical in the first debate as caught by surprise and literally tongue-tied.
How does one respond to a man who has won the Republican Primary by following one axiom — “Further to the Right” — and now in Presidential debates tacks to the middle with a smiling aplomb?
How does one respond to a man who asks that the record be checked to confirm the truth of what he says when he knows the record will not do so?
What he knows is that in a post-truth era he can turn the world upside down but if he does so confidently and presidentially, with great aplomb, he will “win” that debate. And if he turns the world to where his audience has already personally designed it to be, no amount of requests to check the record and protests that these words are false will mean anything.
No one will check the record the next day because in a post-truth era we check Facebook and not the record. No one will check the record the next day because there is no “The” record to check but rather a multitude of conflicting websites, battling blogs and more fascinating viral videos of baby woodchucks and cute kittens on Youtube.
There are those who see a bright future to the opening of Pandora’s Box of constantly procreating personal narratives displayed on constantly procreating platforms of display. No opinion need bend to a Master Voice, to a ruling narrative because there are none. This is a true democratization of meaning and value. The narratives receiving the most “hits” rule. A plethora of “Likes” and smiley faces win. But only until a new narrative goes viral.
Romney has succeeded in so confounding not only “things as they are” but any intelligent search for “things as they are” that he will doubtlessly get perhaps a winning portion of votes from those to whom nothing has ever trickled down from free market play nor will anything ever trickle down. Included here are the unemployed, the sick without health insurance, the foreclosed and bankrupt, those without retirement savings, union members, those who do not have the funds to fly to Paris for an abortion, those who cannot afford to see public education undermined, and all those who rely on the infrastructure and do not jet above it. In other words, in a post-truth era any number of people will, with a smile, sever whatever life support and protection the Federal government yet supplies them and attach themselves to self-defeating inanities.
U.S politics may one day get downsized to the size of an app but conditions in the offline world need not adapt, nor will what is true and not true as well as what is real and not real lose persistence and force in a post-truth era. It is not that “Truth will Prevail” but more like Mother Nature will prevail, or, the “social compact” will dissolve and barbarity will rule, or, hunger, disease and all manner of deprivations will tear us from our opinions and navel gazing. There is no obligation of what the military refers to as “real conditions on the ground” to respect or even acknowledge our post-truth talk, choices or politics.