There’s nothing new about post-truth politics

Simon Blackburn in Prospect:

Unnamed (2)Here are three distinguished journalists, and three books on the same subject. Each one takes its title from the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year for 2016, where “post-truth” was defined 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.” Each is in part a response to the successes of the mendacious Donald Trump campaign and the disgraceful Brexit propaganda of the referendum. Each laments that social media and other dark arts of new technology have unprecedented power to manipulate and mislead a huge proportion of the population. The authors are to be congratulated on being among the first, although surely not the last, to ponder the meaning of the political disasters of 2016 and to worry about the climate that gave birth to them.

The similarity of the three books goes beyond their titles. Each realises that Trump and Brexit have economic and social causes, as swathes of the population, rightly believing themselves ignored and left behind by the Westminster bubble or Washington swamp, fell for the blandishments of simple, populist solutions. But it is not the economic and social causes of these upheavals that bother them. It is the danger that we are drowning in misinformation. We are all at sea, having no landmarks, no bearings, no ways of navigating the tides of spin, lies, bullshit and manipulations that assail us on every side. For every BBC there is a Fox News; for every reliable website there are dozens that peddle lies. So we need to reflect more and trust our “gut” less; we need to cultivate scepticism; we need fact-checkers, (or even fact-checker-checkers, and so on without end, for Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?); we need to find ways of publishing corrections far and wide, and so on.

All three authors are the kind of cocksure empiricists who have been embarrassed by the election result. Davis, an economist and a familiar face and voice from the BBC, shows the widest appreciation of the many ways in which people have always been economical, or worse, with the truth. He is thus slightly less panic-stricken about our present situation, and argues that above all we have to be tough on credulity.

More here.