Sunday, 18 September 2016

The thirty years' war against facts

Apparently, we live in an age of post-truth politics. This looks like a brand new thing, because the phrase "post-truth politics" only dates back to 2010, at least according to Wikipedia (which also dates the coinage of the related phrase "post-truth era" to 2004, the year when one of Karl Rove's aides bragged that he and his boss were busy creating their own reality and relegating the losers in the "reality-based community" to mere observer status). According to Katherine Viner in the Graun, it's all the fault of social media for "disrupting" facts.

But if post-truth really is as shiny, disruptive and new as Apple's newest iThing, what the hell are we supposed to make of this, from Ronald Reagan, testifying about Iran-Contra back in 1987, when Mark Zuckerberg was still in pre-school and Netscape Navigator, the world's first commercial web browser, was still seven years in the future?
"A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages ... My heart and my best intentions tell me that’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not."
For sheer mendacious incoherence, Reagan's testimony trumps even Trump's self-contradictory Birtherist blather, or his nonsensical wibble about his personal net worth "going up and down with markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings." Not that it did the Gipper any harm:
"As the Tower Board reported," [Reagan continued] "what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages. This runs counter to my own beliefs, to administration policy, and to the original strategy we had in mind. There are reasons why it happened, but no excuses. It was a mistake.” Reagan’s sympathetic message resonates with US viewers; his popularity rebounds to over 50 percent in national polls.
As the good folk at RationalWiki have argued, this was every bit as as slippery as Bill Clinton's "I did not have sex with that woman" but way more serious, given that Reagan was talking, not about everyday marital infidelity, but about treasonously supplying heavy weapons to a hostile foreign power that was financing terrorism, in order to finance more terrorism. So we can push the history of consequence-free post-truthism back about three decades. But probably not four, given that Nixon wasn't able to escape the consequences once the truth about Watergate got out.

What changed between the fall of Tricky Dicky and the rise of Ronnie Ray Gun? I don't know for sure, but it certainly wasn't social media, which hadn't even been invented back then.

If I had to guess what went wrong, I'd be thinking about the perfection of modern media manipulation techniques, along with the  debasement of mainstream journalism into the poor relation of public relations. I might be wrong, but I'm probably not quite as wrong as the mainstream journalists who try to pin the blame for this trend - which started before dial-up modems went mainstream  - on the rise of the Twitterstorm.