IS POST-TRUTH PRE-FASCISM?
Lies advance slowly and hypnotically like a gentle incoming tide on a summer’s beach day, but they wipe all traces of the castles we have built in the sands of our carelessness
The expected avalanche of books on post-truth has arrived. Matthew d’Ancona, Evan Davis, James Ball, Ari Havt, Ralph Keyes, Daniel Levitin and Susan Glasser has each produced works with ‘post-truth’ in the title, showing how quickly a concept can be ascendant. The term is believed to have been used first in 1992 in relation to the Iran-Contra affair and the First Gulf War. In 2016, the Oxford Dictionaries named it their Word of the Year.
The risk now is that we become bored with it through over-use.
It’s easy to think of post-truth as a posh way of saying someone is lying, but it is a particular kind of lie forged in the public arena, the one place where untruths can do the most damage. By appealing to emotion and preference, it detaches these from evidence and allows the speaker to pass a fanciful story off as accurate because it suits the listener’s ears.
Before ennui sets in, it is worth reading ‘On Tyranny: twenty lessons from the twentieth century’ by Timothy Snyder (Vintage Press, 2017). Snyder is Professor of History at Yale University and author of many award-winning books on European history. If you have no time for experts, this book is not for you. If you think history is relevant because it tends to repeat itself, albeit in different form, this is the one – above all others – you want to read.
Do not be deterred by the fear of ploughing through opaque philosophy with so many negatives in the sentence you have to count them up to decide if the writer is being positive or negative. Snyder has twenty ideas to pass on. The heading to each chapter contains the key message (e.g. Defend institutions; establish a private life). The start of each chapter contains a simple three or four sentence summary of its content. Each chapter is no more than five or six widely spaced pages long. Snyder has kept it simple. And for good reason.
Two which touch a raw nerve are the need to ‘Be kind to language’ and to ‘Believe in truth’. Snyder notes the way that political clichés narrow debate and eviscerate language. We also tend to repeat them. In doing so, we frequently surrender our capacity for independent thought. This is so much easier and helps us to fit in with the crowd as it swells around an idea. Both the left and the right in politics have sought to hem people in with right ways of thinking, though only see this trait in the other.
How do we maintain an independent conscience? Snyder offers a short but compelling reading list and he ends it by suggesting that Christians go back to their Bible to be enriched in their thinking. When the Bible is marginalised in public discourse, care for those on the fringes suffers. Poor Bible literacy also allows people to baptise unseemly ideas in a parody of Christianity.
Snyder uses the work of Victor Klemperer, whose contemporary journals did so much to interpret the Third Reich for succeeding generations. For Klemperer, truth dies when:
Lies are presented as facts
Phrases are endlessly repeated until they become plausible
Contradiction is openly embraced
Self-deifying claims are made
Lies advance slowly and hypnotically like a gentle incoming tide on a summer’s beach day, but they wipe all traces of the castles we have built in the sands of our carelessness (Matthew 7: 24-27). For Snyder, post-truth is pre-fascism. This may sound unlikely to many. Maybe it is. But it’s in the nature of political oppression to catch its victims by surprise because they can’t imagine it happening.
The American writer David Foster Wallace once said: ‘the truth will set you free, but not until it is finished with you’. Any who want to bear witness to the tenets of a civilised world should first look inwards and let verity do its work. Truth is an angular partner for any journey; that’s why we tend to leave it at home when we venture into public spaces.
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