Earlier this year, as the US journalist Michael Wolff was angrily defending his chart-busting exposé Fire and Fury against allegations that it was thinly sourced and inaccurate – allegations, it should be pointed out, that flowed principally from its apricot-coloured subject – a passage purporting to be an extract from the book was published and widely shared on Twitter. Originating from an account called @pixelatedboat, this ‘shocking insight into Trump’s mind’ (as the tweeter described it) read as follows:
On his first night in the White House, President Trump complained that the TV in his bedroom was broken, because it didn’t have ‘the gorilla channel’. Trump seemed to be under the impression that a TV channel existed that screened nothing but gorilla-based content, 24 hours a day.
To appease Trump, White House staff compiled a number of gorilla documentaries into a makeshift gorilla channel, broadcast into Trump’s bedroom from a hastily constructed transmission tower on the South Lawn. However, Trump was unhappy with the channel they had created, moaning that it was ‘boring’ because ‘the gorillas aren’t fighting’.
Staff edited out all the parts of the documentaries where gorillas weren’t hitting each other, and at last the president was satisfied. ‘On some days he’ll watch the gorilla channel for 17 hours straight,’ an insider told me. ‘He kneels in front of the TV, with his face about four inches from the screen, and says encouraging things to the gorillas, like “the way you hit that other gorilla was good”. I think he thinks the gorillas can hear him.’
As most of @pixelatedboat’s followers would have recognised immediately, the ‘shocking’ character of these revelations was equivalent to a handshake buzzer. The tweet was a joke. And yet, as it spread throughout the Twittersphere, it became clear that many had taken the excerpt as genuine, including some journalists who should have known better. Sky News’ Samantha Maiden was one such, tweeting, ‘The Trump book says the US President watches gorilla docos for hours & crawls around on the floor acting out gorilla stuff.’ (That tweet has since been deleted.) Another was Eric Garland, a strategic intelligence analyst with over 170,000 followers and a fondness for the caps lock key: ‘THE WHITE HOUSE STAFF MADE A MAKESHIFT GORILLA CHANNEL FOR TRUMP TO WATCH AS MUCH AS 17 TIMES A DAY.’ Commenting on his original tweet, @pixelatedboat sounded exasperated: ‘tfw you parody a guy making up shit about Trump but people believe it so you become part of the problem.’
The ‘problem’ identified by @pixelatedboat (aka Australian cartoonist Ben Ward) is the problem that we now call ‘fake news’, which is part of the bigger problem of ‘post-truth’ – a phenomenon that is widely assumed to have peaked with the election of Donald Trump in 2016. It is thus something of an irony that this small act of satire – one dependent for its impact on an image of Trump as surreally stupid and incurious – should have fooled so many of the president’s critics. Unsurprisingly, this irony was not lost on some conservatives, who were happy to take the opportunity to scoff at liberal hypocrisy. But the episode was noted elsewhere, too. In a column for Guardian Australia, Jeff Sparrow took it as evidence of groupthink and an example of a rather forgiving attitude to Fire and Fury in the liberal press. (‘[The book] feels truthful, if not always factual,’ wrote Matthew Knott for Fairfax, while Matthew d’Ancona urged The Guardian’s readers not to be distracted by ‘minor errors’.) In some ways, then, the gorilla channel incident managed both to confirm liberal anxieties about the rise and spread of ‘post-truth politics’ and to upset the narrative around it, which is that the election of Trump and the Brexit vote and the rise of populism more generally are evidence, not just of a resurgent nativism, but of an abandonment of certain intellectual standards, such as respect for facts and expertise. To put it another way: it raised the possibility that the post-truth narrative has itself been infected by fake news.
The possibility should be kept in mind when considering the innumerable opinion articles, essays and books on fake news and post-truth published in the last two years especially. This is the interval in which the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory in the US election catalysed a searching discussion about the threat to authoritative information posed by the internet and social media, partisan news and populist politicians. The post-truth chatter is now at such a pitch, and the attendant anxieties now so widespread, that critical distance is imperative.
In 2017 the British Parliament established an official inquiry into fake news, or ‘the growing phenomenon of widespread dissemination, through social media and the internet, and acceptance as fact of stories of uncertain provenance or accuracy’ (it has recently returned from Washington, where it took evidence from tech and media bigwigs), while in January if this year the Italian government encouraged voters to report false stories through a dedicated internet portal set up ahead of last month’s elections. Facebook is now so worried about fake news – ostensibly, at any rate – that earlier this year it announced a plan to rank news sources for credibility based on feedback from users. Even the Vatican is getting in on the act, with Pope Francis using his 2018 World Communications Day address to compare fake news to the snake in the Garden of Eden – an odd choice, given that that slippery customer urged Eve to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Indeed, a cynic, or at least a sceptic, might question why the Catholic Church feels qualified to comment on fake news at all, given its record on issues ranging from the movement of the planets to creationism, not to mention its history of denial and cover-up regarding abuses of those in its charge. But these are ironies for another time …
The point is that we have now reached the stage where post-truth and fake news are so central to the political conversation that groupthink is almost bound to occur and assumptions that may indeed contain some kernel of truth become mere platitudes. One doesn’t have to employ Edenic imagery à la the current Bishop of Rome in order to lapse into ‘Golden Age’ thinking, and for journalists of a certain vintage the temptation to mistake the state of the world for the state of their own bank accounts is a standing one. (Steven Spielberg’s recent film, The Post, which your reporter took a look at here, is a fine example of this dynamic in action.) None of this is to say that we are not in different territory; it is simply to question whether the map of that territory we’ve been offered is an accurate one, and whether certain of its features remain unchartered. Are we really in a ‘post-truth era’? Is fake news a threat to democracy? What responsibility might the very people who complain loudest about these phenomena bear for their prominence in the current environment? We need, I think, to take a step back and consider these, and other, questions, before declaring an emergency. An emergency it may be; but who should we call?
As a survey of some of the non-fiction titles of the last ten to fifteen years will confirm, the idea that truth is ‘up for grabs’ in a way that it hasn’t been before did not suddenly appear in 2016, when the UK voted to leave the European Union and Trump won the US election. Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World (2004), Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason (2006), Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason (2007), David Aaronvitch’s Voodoo Histories (2009) and Michael Specter’s Denialism (2009) all wrestled, in very different ways, with the hydra of falsehood in the twenty-first century, a century that has indeed been marked by all manner of mad conspiracy theories, anti-intellectualism and hyperpartisan commentary. Meanwhile, on TV, the comedian Stephen Colbert, in his satirical guise as a Fox-style newscaster, effectively prefigured the concept of post-truth, defined by Oxford Dictionaries as an adjective ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. Here is Colbert in 2005, declaring epistemological war on the first ever episode of The Colbert Report:
I will speak to you in plain, simple English. And that brings us to tonight’s word: ‘truthiness’. Now I’m sure some of the ‘word police’, the wordinistas over at Webster’s, are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a word.’ Well, anyone who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist – constantly telling us what is or isn’t true, or what did or didn’t happen. Who’s Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941 that’s my right. I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, no heart. And that’s exactly what’s pulling our country apart today. Coz face it, folks, we are a divided nation. Not between Democrats and Republicans, or conservatives and liberals, or tops and bottoms. No, we are divided between those who think with their head, and those who know with their heart.
As it happens, the wordinistas over at Webster’s were rather taken with ‘truthiness’, declaring it their word of the year for 2006. Clearly the nerve was there to be hit – a full decade before Trump cast his ‘reverse-racoon’ eyes in the direction of the Oval Office.
What changed with Trump and the Brexit debate, or is assumed to have changed with those shocks to the consensus, is that post-truth moved from the margins to the centre. In the UK, anti-EU campaigners made the most outlandish claims about how Britain’s contributions to Europe – £350 million a week, no less! – could be rerouted to the National Health Service, and how the UK would be swamped by immigrants from Turkey should it join the EU (a contingency not currently in prospect). Similarly, Trump waxed conspiratorial about everything from his Republican rivals to China to ‘crooked Hillary’. In speeches, interviews, debates and press conferences, he plumbed the depths of absurdity, at one point even taking credit for ending the so-called ‘birther’ rumours he himself had stoked in the past. The bizarre argument that broke out after the Inauguration, about whether or not the crowd was bigger than the one that attended Barack Obama’s swearing-in (it wasn’t, but Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway claimed to be in possession of some ‘alternative facts’) was, perhaps, the crowning idiocy: Trump, it seemed, was willing to argue not only with the liberal media but also with the evidence of our senses.
More to the point, both Leave and Trump won, and did so in the face of acres of newsprint confidently predicting they would lose. From the perspective of the critics of post-truth, therefore, the catastrophe was a double one. Not only had the Leave and Trump campaigns been happy to peddle blatant untruths in their pursuit of victory at the ballot box, but the mainstream press had shown an inability to affect, or even to predict, the results. In the minds of many commentators, the information devolution was complete: the termites, having dined long and well, had chomped their way through to the centre of power.
Of course, dishonesty is nothing new in politics, and intelligent analysts of the post-truth phenomenon are invariably aware of this. They note, as they must, that dissimulation and deceit and outright lies are political constants and that the importation of modern marketing techniques into politics under the rubric of ‘spin’ has damaged what someone in that line of work might describe as its ‘brand’. But most intuit nevertheless a change in what we might call political demeanour in the Brexit debate and Trump campaign. Put simply, it was as if the truth didn’t matter: its value had collapsed, as the value of a currency collapses, and an epistemological Gresham’s Law had established itself amongst the electorate, with bad information driving out good. To this extent, it is less George Orwell’s ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’ or Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism that preside over such analyses – though both of those texts are cited frequently – than Harry Frankfurt’s 2005 book On Bullshit, a work that describes the bullshit statement ‘as grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true’. As Frankfurt puts it:
What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. These are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispenably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.
Thus, where a Nixon might take to the shadows, Trump seems not to care how his statements are received by the political and media establishments, so far as their truth or falsity is concerned. It is the difference between a rigged bout of boxing and the kind of professional wrestling match in which Trump has been known to take a role. In the former contest the deceit is hidden, while in the latter it is part of the spectacle. (‘There is no more problem of truth in wrestling than in theatre,’ wrote Roland Barthes.) The same intellectual insouciance can be discerned in the outrages of, say, Mark Latham or Ross Cameron, or Tony Abbott in his post-2013 phase: there is a sense that the particular opinions expressed are secondary to the manner in which they are expressed. (Frankfurt: ‘Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, [the bullshitter] turns toward trying to provide honest interpretations of himself.’) A great many essays and books on post-truth make something like this Frankfurtian distinction. Post-truth is a matter not of falsity but of fakery.
In this sense, and in others, James Ball’s Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World, Matthew d’Ancona’s Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back, Evan Davis’ Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It and Tom Nichol’s The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters are fairly representative. Davis, it is true, defines post-tuth more broadly than most commentators, casting his eyes beyond the political sphere in an attempt to establish a sort of General Theory of bullshit taking in everything from the Watergate scandal to poncy descriptions of Pinot Noir; but his analysis is clearly couched in a conviction that something fundamental has changed, and that that something is political in nature. Remarkably, the books were published in the same month – May 2017 – and that fact alone is evidence of just how central this question of truth and its travails has become in the post-Trump period. (No doubt they were written quickly, in order to capitalise on the public mood.) Whether we have indeed reached ‘peak bullshit’ in this period is an open question; but there is no doubt that commentary to that effect has peaked, and no doubt either that these four books – three of them by British media men and one by an American academic (Nichols) – are fairly typical of what we might call the (liberal) theorisation of the crisis so far. Given that, and given the fact that the literature of post-truth is now so vast that it will soon need its own database, I will refer principally to these four titles in what follows.
So who or what is responsible for poisoning the well of truth? We can identify five broad areas that come up frequently in the commentary, all of which go some of the way (though not, I will argue, all of the way, even when taken collectively) to establishing a field theory of modern bullshit. These are: declining trust in power, a cash-strapped and increasingly partisan media, the internet and social media, relativism and human psychology.
Declining trust in power
The argument here is that establishment power has effectively undermined its own legitimacy, not only through plonking acts of deceit such as Watergate, Iran-Contra and the war in Iraq, but also through the dark arts of political spin, which come down to telling the legal truth while effectively working against its spirit in the interests of political advantage. Such behaviour engenders a lack of trust, which in turn undermines politicians’ claims to be acting honestly and in the public interest. Of particular importance here is the fact that politicians are now seen as part of a broader establishment which pursues its own interests without compunction. The heavy traffic between the White House and Wall Street is the most conspicuous instance of this, the former having set the policies that allowed the latter to crash the economy, before bailing it out with taxpayers’ dough. In the UK, too, the broader establishment has been on the nose for a number of years, with scandals rocking the executive (Iraq), the parliament (expenses), the fourth estate (phone-hacking) and the BBC (sexual abuse). Again, the political and non-political spheres are often assumed to be separate cheeks on the same, privately educated, Oxbridge derrière. Ball, indeed, makes the excellent point that the decision of the Remain campaign to gather together pro-Europeans from different parties, professions etc. may well have reinforced the idea of an establishment elite in the public’s mind.
This analysis hinges on a loss of dominance on the part of the mainstream media. This is a process long in the making, and one that certainly isn’t reducible to the opening-up of the internet for general use in the 1990s. Rather it begins with the rise of TV and radio for a specific political constituency – a process driven by the political right in response to an assumed, or alleged, liberal bias in public broadcasting and the Washington press corps. Now, and largely thanks to the internet, the Fox News model of TV news and Rush Limbaugh model of talkback radio have been joined by hyperpartisan outlets of the Breitbart News variety – outlets that make no pretence of even-handedness and spend as much time attacking the mainstream media as they do their political enemies. It is here that ‘fake news’ gets much of its traction, some of it created for ideological purposes, some for kicks, and some for cash. This fake news is then passed on by mainstream media institutions in thrall to (indiscriminate) neutrality (all the authors note how objectivity can often work in favour of the bullshitter, with even the most outlandish claims given airtime in the serious media) and increasingly hungry for sensational content.
Internet and social media
Described by Ball as a ‘misinformation ecosystem’ and by d’Ancona as the ‘principal infrastructure of Post-Truth’, the internet as a subject is inseparable from the issue of partisan media. But the best analyses stress the way that social media platforms like Facebook give rise to so-called ‘filter bubbles’ – communities of the likeminded that share and trust the same kind of news and information – as well as the way that businesses and political parties are able to utilise collected data in order to target social-media users. From this perspective, the early hope for the internet – that it would facilitate a coming-together of different communities in the cause of progress – has been dragged to the recycling bin. Connectivity has led to disconnection – to a kind of online cantonisation in which all manner of virtue signalling, fake news and crazy theories can flourish. As we saw in the gorilla channel episode, this is a phenomenon by no means limited to the conservative or populist side of politics, and one that may even characterise the discussion of post-truth itself. But it is, on the whole, to the gaudier examples of shared fake news that these analyses, and analyses like them, tend to point.
This argument hinges on the appealing irony that those who were schooled in relativism of the Michel Foucault variety, and who are still in thrall to constructivist notions of, say, sexuality and gender, have entered the workforce/public life and created a ‘mood’ (d’Ancona’s word) in which fake news and post-truth can flourish. From this perspective post-truth is based on a radically democratic view of the truth as a matter of personal opinion (cf. ‘truthiness’) and has given latitude to opinions and beliefs that are anything but relativistic – the ethno-nationalism of Steve Bannon, for example. Frankfurt refers to this phenomenon in On Bullshit, noting how ‘antirealist doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry’. Nichols, too, expends much venom here, referring to the ‘solipsistic and thin-skinned insistence that every opinion be treated as truth’.
Laced throughout all of these analyses are what we might call ‘crooked timber’ arguments – arguments, that is to say, that stress the non- or anti-rational characteristics of the human animal. These include motivated reasoning (believing things because doing so is helpful to one’s sense of self), homophilous sorting (clustering together with likeminded people) and basic human stupidity. Again, Nichols is rather taken with that last item, referring many times to the Dunning-Kruger effect, a theory that purports to explain the illusory superiority experienced by people of low cognitive ability. (For Dunning and Kruger the phenomenon was exemplified by the story of McArthur Wheeler, a 1990s bank robber who, having learned that lemon juice was sometimes used to send secret messages, would cover his face in the substance in the belief that it made him invisible. ‘But I wore the juice’ he is reported to have said when shown CCTV footage of himself by a policeman.) Nichols argues that the want of ‘metacognition’ on the part of the ‘unskilled or incompetent’ has hastened ‘the death of expertise’. As he puts it: ‘people who have no idea how to make a logical argument cannot realise when they’re failing to make a logical argument’. We might describe this as ‘unintelligence squared’.
These, then, are the underpinnings of what d’Ancona calls ‘the Post-Truth era’, according to the majority of its analysts. All have something to be said for them, and, taken together, provide a servicebable platform from which to view the changing nature of political discourse in democracies such as our own. But I also think there is something missing from this schema, and that this something is related to what we might call the ‘metacognition’ of the authors themselves. For in addressing the subject of post-truth and the phenomena that underwrite it, none of those authors seems to be thinking about the role information, knowledge and education play in the current political climate. All are alive to the various ways in which expertise is under threat; but none deals with any complexity with the fact that expertise has a centrality it didn’t have in an earlier ‘era’, or with the possibility that its frequent deployment in the name of everything from politics to diet may be a cause of increasing resentment amongst people whose knowledge and education is below the level required for success in a postindustrial, knowledge society. Since the definition of bullshit outlined above is one in which truth is treated with contempt, this strikes me as a major lacuna.
We need another heading, therefore, one stressing less the distrust of power than its unequal distribution in postindustrial societies – an inequality that turns increasingly on education, knowledge and cognitive ability (or, as Nichols might prefer, ‘talent’).
Intending no pun, I propose class resentment.
It’s now clear that the biggest predictor of support for Trump and Leave was low educational attainment. The picture has been multiply confirmed. In November 2016, for example, the UK-based Resolution Foundation released a report on Trump’s election entitled ‘In the Swing of Things’, which concluded unequivocally that the strongest predictor of how much a county swung towards the Republicans was the share of people with ‘only a high school education’. Similarly, in the case of Brexit, a higher share of people with university qualifications were likely to vote to remain in the EU, while those who lacked such qualifications were more likely to vote to leave it. (This led to an interesting demographic phenomenon: an archipelago of pro-Remain ‘university towns’ in regions of strongly pro-Leave sentiment.) The same is true of support for Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National in France, and indeed our own Pauline Hanson, support for whom is higher in areas with low levels of tertiary education. Of course, one cannot separate issues of social disadvantage, job security etc. from issues of educational attainment; but if one is looking for a dominant factor within that wider pool of variables, education is undoubtedly it.
The question is: What do we do with this finding? How do we choose to read the data, socially and politically? For those most enamoured of the centrality of education and knowledge to the current socioeconomic mix – those who have done best out of it, more or less – the answer might be that a good education gives us the ability to make good political choices. (In an article for The Guardian published in December 2016, the US novelist Francine Prose gave a rather caffeinated example of this analysis, declaring that Trump and his analogues were ‘reaping the benefits’ of a dying public education system.) However, there is another possibility – one noted by the statistician Nate Silver towards the end of his report on the US election. Silver, it should be said, cites a number of factors, including media-consumption habits and feelings of economic pessimism among the non-tertiary-educated; but his suggestion that education levels may be a proxy for cultural hegemony casts fresh light on the post-truth question:
Academia, the news media and the arts and entertainment sectors are increasingly dominated by people with a liberal, multicultural worldview, and jobs in these sectors also almost always require college degrees. Trump’s campaign may have represented a backlash against these cultural elites.
From this point of view Clinton’s candidacy was an avatar for what Thomas Frank has called, in Listen, Liberal, ‘the professional class’ – a class that has grown in size and power as a result of the transition to a postindustrial economy that began in earnest in the 1990s. That transition involved a ‘liberalisation’ of the economy whereby the market would be given freer rein and the state restrict itself (in theory) to the provision of education and (re)training. It also involved a reorientation of the economy away from material commodities (as traditional industries moved offshore, were automated or undercut by competitors) and towards the kind of knowledge work for which a tertiary education is necessary. Now, that knowledge work is central, not only to the economy, but also to politics, where the ethos of merit and expertise that accompanied the transition to the knowledge society is represented at the policy level in so-called ‘double delegation’ – i.e. the referring of decisions up to bodies such as the IMF or the European Union, or out to non-political bodies – and at the personal or stylistic level in Clintonesque self-congratulation. Clinton’s decision to take her stand on the high ground of her own experience, and her shapeless pudding of a manifesto, which was full of micro-ameliorative measures unconnected by anything other than the fact that it was Clinton putting them forward, were projections of this professional ethos, as indeed was Remain’s decision to ignore issues of sovereignty and national identity and base its case on steady-as-she-goes economic wonkery. Heavy on experts and light on ideas, these campaigns were uninspired and uninspiring, and shot-through with technocratic arrogance.
This is a crude sketch, and a partial one, but I’m convinced that it’s within this broader class shift that the politics of post-truth has taken hold, and that a serious and cogent analysis of that shift is what’s missing from the mainstream analysis of post-truth. The point has been made by Crikey’s Guy Rundle, whose reports from the 2016 US election gave a far more granular picture of Trump’s base than the one available in most mainstream prints. Here’s Rundle reflecting on the changing character of climate change denialism in the US and elsewhere:
Climate change denialism, which rose in power about 15 years ago, had appeared to be in retreat about five to seven years ago. Now it is returning, and in great strength. Climate change activists are dismayed by it, and also bewildered. The science has got stronger, the evidence more plentiful. Why has the public become, it seems, even more resistant to the notion that global industrial activity is warming the planet to at least a disastrous and potentially catastrophic degree?
The answer, quite simply, is that we are facing a new phase of climate change denialism, working off a different basis to the old. There is less stuff about fictional ‘pauses’ in warming created by small time samples, albedo, urban heat islands … all the tendentious arguments of the Ian Plimers, and the late Bob Carter. There is now simply, among many people, a refusal to acknowledge it, or even accept it. Why? Because climate change science – pretty much all science – is now being enrolled in the great culture/class war that is consuming Western society, the brutal fight for recognition and position between the progressive-knowledge classes, and the working and middle classes, who now feel themselves to be excluded from the processes of power, wealth and legitimacy.
With the knowledge class now installed at the centre of the culture and economy, knowledge itself has been politicised. ‘Truth’ is a casualty of the new class war.
To this extent our authors come closest to a comprehensive view of post-truth when they stress the role of signalling and narrative in contemporary politics. These emphases, which are close to Salena Zito’s useful (if reductive) distinction, in The Atlantic, between those who take Trump literally but not seriously and those who take him seriously but not literally (those who didn’t vote for him, and those who did, respectively), go to the symbolic role that post-truth plays in the current environment. Davis, for example, contends that Trump’s exaggerations about unemployment and immigration were calculated, not to convince his followers, or potential followers, of a certain set of figures, but of his opposition to the liberal establishment. Similarly, d’Ancona emphasises the ‘deep story’ Trump conveys to many working and middleclass voters. Drawing on Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, he suggests that Trump-style populism is often selling a ‘feel-as-if story’ – a story that resonates at an emotional level to which disaggregated data cannot penetrate. Of course, such stories only penetrate at all because they contain a kernel of, well, truth: the communities that voted for Trump or Leave haven’t done well out of the great economic and cultural shifts of recent decades. But it is the fact that they are so often larded with falsehood that tends to obsess the liberal commentator.
Were that commentator to pick one villain for his piece, it’s entirely possible he would pick Michael Gove, the former British Justice Secretary For Gove it was who told Sky News’ Faisal Islam, ‘I think the people of this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong’ – a comment that is usually shortened to ‘The people of this country have had enough of experts’ and taken as evidence of the Leave campaign’s mendacity. (Davis doesn’t mention this remark; but Ball, d’Ancona and Nichols do, and only give the shorter version.) But as demagogic as that comment was, it also channelled a widespread feeling that the technocratic character of modern politics and politicians runs contrary to the spirit of democracy – an attribute notably lacking, incidentally, from the European Union. In this sense, post-truth, which in Oxford’s definition is founded on a category mistake – on a confusion between ‘objective facts’ and ‘personal feelings’ – is itself a reaction to a category mistake – to a confusion between politics as a site of conflict between different views of society and politics as a managerial enterprise on which experts should have the final say. And it’s precisely this distinction, I would argue, that the knowledge class and its representatives frequently miss in these discussions.
The distinction is not incidental. An academic writing in a peer-reviewed journal can offer useful insights into how best to deliver services to remote communities, but she cannot prove through peer review that remote communities ought to be serviced; plainly, that is a moral question, one the answer to which will depend on your view of the good society. Similarly, there may be a right way and a wrong way to make sure that benefits are distributed equally and fairly; but there is no right or wrong answer to the question of whether we should have benefits in the first place, or to what a fair allocation of them is. This is not to entertain a facile relativism; it is simply to say that politics is always about values, and that the liberal obsession with expertise is bound to instil resentment in those whose lives are neither materially improved nor morally relevant in the current liberal mix. This is, if you like, the deep story of post-truth.
It’s often said that what liberals need in this environment is a narrative of their own. But of course there is a liberal narrative and, at its worst, it conforms roughly to the plot of Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, a film in which human society has devolved to the point where the stupidest now rule the planet. It is a gorilla channel view of the world in which the lunatics have taken over the asylum, or the idiots have taken over the academy, and are shaping up to wreck the joint. It’s not fake news, by any means: Trump is a moron, and may wreck the joint yet. But nor is the liberal theorisation of post-truth entirely free from the smell of bullshit.
A more radical approach to this question would stress, not only the role of class and culture in the rise of the post-truth populists, but also the role of class and culture in their reception in the mainstream media. It would recognise that rightwing populism is an illiberal but democratic response to an increasingly undemocratic liberalism, and that doubling-down on your claim to have the experts on your side is a mistake, if that is all you’re going to do. It would recognise, too, the intellectual hubris lurking in the very notion of post-truth, implying as it does a wholesale change in the way we deal with information, as opposed to something specific and political, and related to the transformations outlined above. (God knows, it isn’t as if everyone with an internet connection now believes that two and two equals five, or that the oceans are made of lemonade.) Finally, it would be a little more sceptical of the view advanced by Stephen Colbert – in jest, it is true, or at least in character – that reality has a ‘well-known liberal bias’. As the author (and liberal) Clay Shirky phrased it on the day after the Republican National Convention in Ohio in July 2016, ‘We’ve brought fact-checkers to a culture war.’ It’s time, as he says, to ‘get serious’.
Francis Wheen, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, Harper Perennial, 2004
Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason, Random House, 2006
Al Gore, The Assault on Reason, Penguin, 2007
David Aaronvitch, Voodoo Histories, Jonathan Cape, 2009
Michael Specter, Denialism, Penguin, 2009
George Orwell, ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’ in Essays, Penguin Classics, 2000
Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Vintage, 2012
Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit, Princeton University Press, 2005
James Ball, Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World, Biteback Publishing, 2017
Matthew d’Ancona, Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back, Ebury Press, 2017
Evan Davis, Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It, Little, Brown, 2017
Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, OUP, 2017
Thomas Frank, Listen, Liberal, Metropolitan Books, 2016
Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land, New Press, 2016