Truth decay has been spreading for decades. How can we stop alternative facts from bringing down democracy, asks Michiko Kakutani
Two of the most monstrous regimes in human history came to power in the 20th century, and both were predicated on the violation and despoiling of truth, on the knowledge that cynicism and weariness and fear can make people susceptible to the lies and false promises of leaders bent on unconditional power. As Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (ie the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (ie the standards of thought) no longer exist.
Arendts words increasingly sound less like a dispatch from another century than a chilling description of the political and cultural landscape we inhabit today a world in which fake news and lies are pumped out in industrial volume by Russian troll factories, emitted in an endless stream from the mouth and Twitter feed of the president of the United States, and sent flying across the world through social media accounts at lightning speed. Nationalism, tribalism, dislocation, fear of social change and the hatred of outsiders are on the rise again as people, locked in their partisan silos and filter bubbles, are losing a sense of shared reality and the ability to communicate across social and sectarian lines.
This is not to draw a direct analogy between todays circumstances and the overwhelming horrors of the second world war era, but to look at some of the conditions and attitudes what Margaret Atwood has called the danger flags in George Orwells Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm that make a people susceptible to demagoguery and political manipulation, and nations easy prey for would-be autocrats. To examine how a disregard for facts, the displacement of reason by emotion, and the corrosion of language are diminishing the value of truth, and what that means for the world.
The term truth decay has joined the post-truth lexicon that includes such now familiar phrases as fake news and alternative facts. And its not just fake news either: its also fake science (manufactured by climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers, who oppose vaccination), fake history (promoted by Holocaust revisionists and white supremacists), fake Americans on Facebook (created by Russian trolls), and fake followers and likes on social media (generated by bots).
Donald Trump, the 45th president of the US, lies so prolifically and with such velocity that the Washington Post calculated hed made 2,140 false or misleading claims during his first year in office an average of 5.9 a day. His lies about everything from the investigations into Russian interference in the election, to his popularity and achievements, to how much TV he watches are only the brightest blinking red light among many warnings of his assault on democratic institutions and norms. He routinely assails the press, the justice system, the intelligence agencies, the electoral system and the civil servants who make the US government tick.
Nor is the assault on truth confined to America. Around the world, waves of populism and fundamentalism are elevating appeals to fear and anger over reasoned debate, eroding democratic institutions, and replacing expertise with the wisdom of the crowd. False claims about the UKs financial relationship with the EU helped swing the vote in favour of Brexit, and Russia ramped up its sowing of dezinformatsiya in the runup to elections in France, Germany, the Netherlands and other countries in concerted propaganda efforts to discredit and destabilise democracies.
How did this happen? How did truth and reason become such endangered species, and what does the threat to them portend for our public discourse and the future of our politics and governance?