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Saturday, February 4, 2017

Power Politics Leads to a “Post-Truth” World

Too many Americans today are willing to accept gross exaggerations and outright lies about the exercise of authority.

As I watched the presidency pass into Donald Trump’s hands, I found it all at once beautiful, horrifying, and absurd. It was beautiful to see people become wary of power immediately upon giving it up, horrifying to see those once wary of power turn around and trivialize its hazards, and absurd to see how vigorous and divisive the presidential cult of personality has become over a “government of laws” versus a “government of men.”

Spin Until Dizzy

What might the age of Trump foreshadow? Every political pundit had their own spin on the inaugural event, and some commentators are putting on their best impersonations of the mad prophet of the airwaves, Howard Beale.

Some buy into the narratives proffered by Trump; others are already calling themselves the resistance to our new fair-haired, orange president. Political factions are giving a new perverse meaning to the phrase, “Seek, and ye shall find.”

Those who lose power awake to its threats, while those who win it fall asleep to its dangers.

It’s sickening. Despite the freedom to believe and say what they wish, millions of people are taking their cues based on what the new leader says and does, as though the only question worth asking today is, “How should the power of the U.S. government be administered?” If only they asked themselves, “Should this power exist in the first place?”

Sadly, the “mind-forg’d manacles” of simply being for or against the new president have sapped many people’s ability to see the truth as anything other than a battle of narratives regarding the exercise of state power. Obsessed with this power, Americans and their neighbors are doing the work of Big Brother themselves, tearing their minds to pieces and putting them together again to fit a given political narrative. Too many Americans today are willing to accept gross exaggerations and outright lies because of what their teams believe about the exercise of authority.

Unsurprisingly, a recent report tells us George Orwell’s 1984 is now back on the bestseller list. This is welcome and expected. Donald Trump’s presidential victory ensured that, once again, Orwell would become posthumously prominent in American politics, especially on the left. I say this because, apart from Donald Trump’s fast-and-loose relationship with the truth, the Orwellian mantle has become something of a political consolation prize. While the winning party picks up power and authority after an election, the losing party can’t help but to see themes from Animal Farm and 1984 in each day’s news stories.

Something about power makes those who lose it wake up to its perverse threats, while those who win it fall asleep to its dangers. Standing on the outside looking in, it is easy to see power is and has always been for the few to use and the many to suffer. Appeals to liberty, it seems, serve as the last refuge for those out of power. May it ever be so.

Intentions Matter

I hope all these freshly purchased copies of 1984 will actually be read and understood rather than serve as stylish knick-knacks on a shelf. The more people who read Orwell the better. However, I would remind those who may be licking their wounds as they read to consider one of Orwell’s favorite lines of poetry from William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence:

A Truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent

To tell the truth “with bad intent” is to be selective and bend the truth to fit one’s interests, making a smokescreen for bad intentions while transforming good intentions into an excuse for trafficking in lies. This is how we sanitize language with euphemisms, whereby torture becomes “enhanced interrogation,” the murder of innocents in war becomes “collateral damage,” and concern for human rights becomes “political correctness” (how ironic that “PC”, a term initially meant to critique euphemistic language, has become a euphemism itself).

But, most of all, to tell a truth with bad intent is to say something true about someone else while refusing to admit the same truth about yourself. It would be a shame to see a partisan share Orwell’s wisdom to critique the opposition’s ambitions for power and not their own, though that is exactly what I expect them to do.

More than any lie Donald Trump or the media can invent, bad faith and bad intent have become the greatest threat to freedom and truth. The human imagination cannot long flourish as a mere tool for power and political posturing.

Bad faith and bad intent have become the greatest threat to freedom and truth.

Luckily, much of the world today looks nothing like that of Winston Smith, the hero of 1984. Even the country that most closely resembles Orwell’s Oceania, North Korea, is beginning to crack. Orwell’s nightmare of a “boot stamping on a human face forever” is still possible but seems remote. Howard Beale’s lament that “it’s the individual that’s finished due to corporate control of the airwaves, mass production, and consumerism seems flawed.

As much as the ruling party wishes to advance their own narrative as “the Truth” above all others, new communication technologies have made this nearly impossible. As much as Trump and his acolytes hail alternative media (as well as “alternative facts) as their weapon against establishment news outlets, I expect such methods will soon be used against them. As much as Internet culture helped blaze a trail for Trump’s historic campaign, his attempts to create a unified narrative for his presidency will most likely be frustrated and undone by that same culture.

Vigilant Truth-Telling

All the warnings from past and present — that power would destroy and control the truth from a central nexus — have not yet come to pass. No, again, what we see today are many competing narratives. And though this suggests the world is on the verge of changing for the better, it is no doubt all very confusing and perplexing in the short-term. With so many voices claiming to offer the “real story” or “the truth” or “universal values” in competition with one another, disenchantment was bound to become our lingua franca for a time.  

Eschew any power that wishes to make the truth subservient to its interests.

In this new tumultuous age of political narrative wars and “fake news,” it would be best to remember what scared Big Brother the most — language independent of power’s demands.

Indeed, the most important things in life are the stories we weave for ourselves, and unlike ever before in human history, we have the tools to do so free from power’s jealous demands. Now, we must simply take a different path.

If we are to survive this new digital age of mad prophet pundits, we won’t do it by merely calling out the lies and hypocrisies of our age. Be wary of those “mind-forg’d manacles” of simply being for or against a given authority. Eschew any power that wishes to make the truth subservient to its interests.

Instead, craft narratives independent from the banal desire for political power, control, and war. The ability to create new fictions and recall that which is beautiful within our religious, civic, and commercial traditions is within our grasp.

As a start, we would be wise to remember that, according to Orwell, this phrase could not be translated into Newspeak,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

And, in the end, we would be wise to remember the rest of William Blake’s line about truths told with bad intent — that for all the blessings of this or any other revolutionary age there will also be curses:

A Truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent
It is right it should be so
Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Thro the World we safely go
Joy & Woe are woven fine
A Clothing for the soul divine
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine