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Saturday, July 14, 2018

Living in a post-truth world

It was another extraordinary day in UK politics yesterday, with tens of thousands of people protesting against Donald Trump, whilst the US President himself continued his habit of reinventing the truth as he progressed from event to event.

Two incidents in particular stick out. Firstly, as the Guardian reports, Trump abruptly disavowed the criticism of Theresa May he had earlier made to the Sun newspaper, delivering an extraordinary press conference performance alongside the prime minister in which he pledged new support for a post-Brexit trade deal and attacked the British tabloid over “fake news”.

The Sun of course has the whole interview on tape, indicating that the only 'fake news' was that being delivered by Trump to the assembled media.

And then there was the extraordinary Twitter exchange over Trump's claim that he had been in the UK on the day of the Brexit referendum and had correctly predicted the result. As Trump's own twitter feed as well as many other sources prove, he actually arrived in Scotland the day after the Brexit vote on 24th July 2016.

This did not stop Stephanie Grisham, the White House Director of Communications for the First Lady seeking to back up the misinformation given by the President. Fortunately, the BBC's Jon Sopel was around to put her back in her box.

There is a fascinating article by Michiko Kakutani in today's Guardian headed: 'he death of truth: how we gave up on facts and ended up with Trump' in which he asserts that Donald Trump lies so prolifically and with such velocity that the Washington Post calculated he’d made 2,140 false or misleading claims during his first year in office – an average of 5.9 a day.

He says that 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.

He continues: '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 UK’s 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.'

His conclusion is absolutely bang on the button, but no less unsettling for that:

Philip Roth said he could never have imagined that “the 21st-century catastrophe to befall the USA, the most debasing of disasters”, would appear in “the ominously ridiculous commedia dell’arte figure of the boastful buffoon”. Trump’s ridiculousness, his narcissistic ability to make everything about himself, the outrageousness of his lies, and the profundity of his ignorance can easily distract attention from the more lasting implications of his story: how easily Republicans in Congress enabled him, undermining the whole concept of checks and balances set in place by the founders; how a third of the country passively accepted his assaults on the constitution; how easily Russian disinformation took root in a culture where the teaching of history and civics had seriously atrophied.

The US’s founding generation spoke frequently of the “common good”. George Washington reminded citizens of their “common concerns” and “common interests” and the “common cause” they had all fought for in the revolution. And Thomas Jefferson spoke in his inaugural address of the young country uniting “in common efforts for the common good”. A common purpose and a shared sense of reality mattered because they bound the disparate states and regions together, and they remain essential for conducting a national conversation. Especially today in a country where Trump and Russian and hard-right trolls are working to incite the very factionalism Washington warned us about, trying to inflame divisions between people along racial, ethnic and religious lines.

There are no easy remedies, but it’s essential that citizens defy the cynicism and resignation that autocrats and power-hungry politicians depend on to subvert resistance. Without commonly agreed-on facts – not Republican facts and Democratic facts; not the alternative facts of today’s silo-world – there can be no rational debate over policies, no substantive means of evaluating candidates for political office, and no way to hold elected officials accountable to the people. Without truth, democracy is hobbled.

This is not a world that I am comfortable with and nor should any of us be. We need to fight back against this post-truth dystopia for the sake of democracy and our freedom.
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