How “post-truth” has failed us, book review
How “post-truth” has failed us
Book Review: Post Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back (Matthew D’Ancona 2017)
“Post-truth” has become the zeitgeist-y catchphrase since Donald Trump’s election coincided with the UK’s vote to leave the EU. Matthew D’Ancona argues that 2016 launched the ‘post-truth era’: emotion is now valued over reason and facts are no longer central to politics.
Despite only referencing the US and UK, D’Ancona declares post-truth a ‘global trend’. His western exceptionalism is glaring: it is only when politicians start lying here that we all need to fret.
As the term implies, D’Ancona sanitises the history books to include a glorious “Truth era” in the west where rational, informed decision-making prevailed. Between the Scientific Revolution and 2016’s ‘crash in the value of truth’ he suggests social myths were tempered by ‘rationality, pluralism and the priority of truth’. He calls for a return to ‘Enlightenment values”; ‘free societies and democratic discourse’. Omitting that the Enlightenment was over by the time slavery was abolished in the UK and USA, and that it took until 1928 for all British women to get the vote, it is uncritically celebrated as the birth of modernity and democracy.
D’Ancona himself situates distrust in various pre-2016 events: the 2008 financial crash; the 2009 UK expenses scandal; the administrations of Nixon, Reagan and Blair. He cites Orwell’s 1942 lamentation that ‘objective truth is fading out of the world’ and the first usage of ‘post-truth’ in 1992 by Steve Teisch. He ignores the rise of right-wing populism in Post-War Europe, with anti-immigration rhetoric that makes the Leave campaign look subtle, as well as Europe’s most pronounced use of fake news, conspiracy theories and propaganda that led to the Holocaust.
D’Ancona’s celebration of ‘Enlightenment values’ speaks for a school of liberal thought that assumed the UK and USA to be places of steadfast epistemological integrity and whose world-view is now in crisis.
How about, instead an epistemological angle (the ‘erosion of truth’) – we consider the ideological forces returning to the mainstream in the West? This is one of the key points made by Mejia, Beckermann and Sullivan in their paper which highlights the ‘racial amnesia’ required to declare that only now do we live in a post-truth era. ‘Because of the general ignorance about the scholarship, literature, and experiences of people of color’, they argue, ‘it is not surprising that so many of our post-truth critics think that the post-truth begins with the Internet’. They use US drug and housing policy to illustrate how the lives of people of colour have been consistently defined by untruths. Comparably, the rise of conspiracy theories that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic gets granted a certain innocence by a focus on epistemology, with little comment on the revival of age-old anti-semitic tropes and their concentration amongst white supremacist networks.
D’Ancona does not mention race in his book. Instead, he argues that Trump’s campaign and the Leave campaign both understood a simple narrative to be more compelling to voters than complexity. If we are drawing links between the simplistic narratives of Brexit campaigners and Trump, where is “Build the wall”? Where is Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster? Is simplistic and emotional narratives an embarrassed euphemism for ‘racist’ and nationalistic?
The logic behind D’Ancona’s belief that simplistic narratives are only now successful is that a rise in the social value of emotion has left people ill-equipped to reasonably evaluate information. Not only is his dichotomising of emotion and reason false and historically gendered, but D’Ancona rejects the very theorists who can offer him valuable analysis. He misattributes Freud with inventing emotions, and Foucault with creating fake news, ‘pernicious relativism’ and a ‘mood’ of cynicism. Instead, Foucault’s constructionism illuminates an analysis of how social realities (the ‘deep stories’ and ‘shared mythologies’ that concern D’Ancona) are discursively produced and maintained through power.
Whilst the term “post-truth” has led to much intellectual chin-scratching, violent right wing ideology is let off the hook: it’s an epistemological problem, not an ideological one! This is not to say that conversations about disinformation, information warfare and internet-induced polarisation are not vitally important. But Trump’s refusal to accept of the results of 2020’s election and this year’s violent storming of the capitol by white supremacists should be a wake up call. We are not witnessing an erosion in the value of truth but a return of fascist politics to the mainstream, allbeit with new online tactics. D’Ancona’s own ‘deep story’ is a liberal, whiggish delusion that the UK and USA had transcended these ugly ideologies.
Eliza Bacon, MA Global Media and Communications