A couple of weeks ago, three excellent and interesting books came out in the same week with the same title. First was ‘Post Truth’ by Matthew D’ancona. The second one was ‘Post Truth’ by James Ball. The third was ‘Post Truth’ by Evan Davis. They are all responses to the Oxford English Dictionary’s decision to choose the word ‘post truth’ as their word for 2017 and the dangerous and growing phenomenon of ‘alternative facts’, ‘fake news’ etc. Here are a few thoughts of mine about the concept of ‘post truth’ based on these books and why the resultant erosion of trust is so dangerous for our society.
For leaders like Trump and Putin, telling big lies isn’t about persuasion — it’s about power.
The Super Bowl That Trump’s America Deserves
I’m not really sure why they’re bothering with a Super Bowl this year. Sure, a bunch of people will make a boatload of money, tens of millions of us will reflexively tune in and we’ll find rare common ground over how cheesy the halftime show is. But are we believers anymore? Will we really see the winner as the winner — or just as the charmed survivor of a grossly tarnished process? Be it the New England Patriots or the Los Angeles Rams, the team will have an asterisk after its name. And that asterisk is a big fat sign of the times.
I’m referring, of course, to the miserable officiating that’s arguably the reason the Patriots beat the Kansas City Chiefs and the Rams beat the New Orleans Saints, leading to the matchup in this coming Sunday’s season-finale game. The Rams in particular were blessed by the referees, who failed to note and penalize a glaring case of pass interference in the climactic minutes. I needn’t describe what happened. Footage of it has been replayed as extensively and analyzed as exhaustively as the Zapruder film.
And it has prompted an intensity of protest, a magnitude of soul searching and a depth of cynicism that go well beyond the crime in question. That’s where the feelings about the Super Bowl and the mood of America converge.
We’re still reeling from a presidential election that was colored if not corrupted by unfair advantages, undue meddling and disrespected rules, and here we have a Super Bowl that’s colored if not corrupted by unfair advantages, undue meddling and disrespected rules. Many fans are rejecting its legitimacy — sound familiar? There are conspiracy theories afoot.
Americans are so down on, and distrustful of, major institutions and authorities that we’re primed to declare their fraudulence, and the National Football League and the Super Bowl are on the receiving end of that. They’re not fresh targets, not by any stretch. But this time we’ve lost all sense of perspective.
.. The missed pass-interference call in the clash between the Rams and Saints was certainly egregious, but every football game is a compendium of good and bad breaks; luck is always a factor and often the deciding one. The Saints had home-field advantage, and their fans created enough noise to addle and even paralyze the Rams on offense. The Saints also made errors galore, blowing the possibility of a lead too commanding to be erased by poor officiating. On a recent episode of his podcast, the sports commentator Bill Simmons methodically broke down the game en route to this conclusion: “I really thought the Rams were better.” He added that “if that’s a neutral field, I think the Rams win.”
That the Rams did win, with an assist from somnambulistic referees, has not gone over well in New Orleans. The Louisiana governor wrote a letterof condemnation to N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell. The New Orleans City Council is considering a formal resolution declaring the outcome an “injustice” and demanding that the N.F.L. thoroughly review its rules. One of Louisiana’s senators has called for a congressional hearing on the matter.
Several Saints ticket holders have filed lawsuits against the N.F.L., variously claiming that they have endured mental anguish, lost the enjoyment of life and been defrauded by the league. A movement in New Orleans to boycott the Super Bowl involves the staging of competing events, vows by many bars not to show the game and pledges by many other bars to show, instead, the 2010 Super Bowl, in which the Saints beat the Indianapolis Colts.
The Reichstag fire was at least a fire. Here, there is smoke and mirrors.
When Trump was in business, his shtick was stiffing contractors. If confronted, he would try some bombast and storm out of meetings, as he did the other day with congressional leaders, ending talks on the partial government shutdown caused by a crisis he has manufactured. His shtick now is stiffing all Americans. The technique is the same: Keep reality at a distance through hyperactive fakery.
.. A manufactured crisis, I said. It’s worth recalling the 5,200 troops ordered to the southern border before the midterm elections to confront the “caravan of migrants.” This was an exercise in manipulative illusion.
Monthly crossings over the southern border have declined in recent years. The number of migrants apprehended has also fallen over the past decade, with a recent tick upward. There is no humanitarian crisis, just as not a single mile of additional wall has been built since Trump took office.
But absent this noise, what does reality offer the president? Robert Mueller, Nancy Pelosi and Michael Cohen, the specters of his insomnia.
.. The essential distinction that Frankfurt, a professor of philosophy emeritus at Princeton University, makes is between lies and bull. As he writes, “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.”
.. It is a habit “unconstrained by a concern with truth” whose essence is “not of falsity but of fakery.” The addict of bull “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” He is “trying to get away with something.” His “focus is panoramic rather than particular,” and he shuns “the more austere and rigorous demands of lying.”
Frankfurt’s conclusion may be read as an ominous verdict on this president. The bull merchant “does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”
It has been said that Trump’s extraordinary election victory owed much to his intuitions about the anger in the heartland. There is some truth in this. But his essential intuition was into the readiness of Americans, suspended between the real and the virtual, for a post-truth presidency.
Quinta Jurecic, in an important essay for the Lawfare Blog, set out the dangers inherent in this shift before Trump took office. In the essay, “On Bullshit and the Oath of Office: The ‘LOL Nothing Matters’ Presidency,” she cited Frankfurt and argued that Trump’s “foundational disrespect for meaning and consequence” — that is to say, for reality and the very concept of law — would make it “impossible for Donald Trump to faithfully execute the laws of this nation and the duties of the oath of office and to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.”
The president’s apparent readiness to “do national emergency,” as he put it, over a manufactured border crisis amounts to a perfect illustration of this danger. The Reichstag fire was at least a fire. Here there is only smoke and mirrors.
I would add one element to the reflections of Frankfurt and Jurecic on bull. There may be something amusing, or at least innocuous, about the bullshit artists encountered in a lifetime. They may be waved away. But in Trump the element of sadistic cruelty in his personality (mocking the disabled, for example), and the sheer gall of his fakery, make of him a malignant, rather than a benign, bullshit artist. He happens to occupy the world’s most powerful office.
Trump cannot help himself, I said. He can’t and won’t. But as citizens, “we have a duty to insist that words have meaning,” as Jurecic writes. If they don’t, neither does the Republic. That’s what the ants told me as I gazed at them, troubled and fixated.