Since memory is often short, we tend, in difficult moments, to think the crisis we’re facing is unique.
We’ve been thrust into just such a situation with the rise of U.S. President Donald Trump’s world of “alternative facts,” which coincides, conveniently, with the naming of “post-truth” as Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 “word of the year.”
Earlier this month, drawing upon an article in the Guardian, Leah McLaren declared in the Globe and Mail that Trump’s alternative universe is so pervasive and malign that we face a world in which, now rendered incapable of distinguishing truth from falsehood, we’ll drown in his lies.
Around the same time, New York Times columnist David Brooks argued that Trump represents an assault on the Enlightenment project itself – an attack, that is, on rational thought and on the very foundation of liberal democracy and its institutions.
According to Brooks, Trump’s “populist ethnic nationalist movements” are anti-Enlightenment in that they “believe less in calm persuasion and evidence-based inquiry than in purity of will. They try to win debates through blunt force and silencing unacceptable speech.”
Brooks was generous. It’s not that Trump and the “brains” behind him in the White House – principally former alt-right-promoting Breitbart editor and now “chief strategist” Stephen Bannon – care little about calm persuasion and evidence. It’s that they don’t care at all.
Indeed, they appear determined to rip apart the fabric of reason and evidence in pursuit of a “post-Enlightenment” authoritarian order.
The good news is that major democratic institutions intended as checks on potential abuse of power are, so far, holding. These include institutions that are under assault, foremost the mainstream media, which have been repeatedly delegitimized by Trump and his agents as purveyors of “fake news.”
If we were truly living in a “post-fact/post-truth” world, as we’re often told these days, we wouldn’t have the evidence of the fact-checking push-back by the media against Trump’s lies. The vitality of this push-back is a refutation of our so-called “post-Enlightenment” world.
One fascinating irony is that some in the news media who now insist on adhering to “objective fact,” are, in many cases, among those who, not long ago, insisted – following left-wing academics and polemicists – that “objectivity” was illusory, not even a legitimate aspiration, because, among other things, it aimed only to support dominant power structures.
In the early 1980s, opposing the idea of a correspondence between narrative and fact, influential leftist philosopher Richard Rorty argued that there’s nothing but narrative, and, accordingly, that “truth” was just stories accepted by consensus. This led to an almost “anything goes” atmosphere.
By the mid-1990s, alarmed at the growth of “post-truth” and “anti-science” dogma coming from many leftist intellectuals espousing what was generally called “postmodernism,” the New York Academy of Sciences held a conference, “The Flight from Science and Reason.”
The academy followed that up with a book by that title, in which co-editor Paul Gross recalled a time, not long before, when “naming oneself a ‘progressive’ meant aligning oneself with logic, science, and truth.”
Now that many of our democratic institutions (not just in America) are under assault from the right, elements of the left are rediscovering the virtues of striving for objective knowledge.
The bottom line is that, even if it’s presented that way these days, “post-truth” is not a new phenomenon. Radical skepticism in one form or another has a history stretching back centuries, even millennia.
In as much as it’s currently easy to spread “fake news” via social media– a recent technological development for sure – at least there are now watchdogs, individuals and groups using the same platforms, dedicated to calling out the lies and insisting, along with mainstream media, on factual accuracy.
Vigilance is key to preserving the best that the modern world of the Enlightenment has provided us. We must all contribute to countering lies with real, not (misleadingly named) “alternative,” facts.
Paul Michaels is CIJA’s research director.