Friday, 29 December 2017

Book of the year >>> >>> Matthew D’Ancona’s 'Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back' >>> >>> "The only reliable engines of change are the people themselves."

Looking at the Guardian's list of best books of the year, this is a favourite:

In a year when the dance between evidence, lies and democracy has dominated headlines on both sides of the Atlantic, we’ve seen a clutch of books trying to make sense of the “post-truth” phenomenon. I found Matthew D’Ancona’s short but arresting Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back the best of the bunch.

Favourite reads of 2017 - as chosen by scientists | Science | The Guardian

With plenty of other good reviews of the book:
Post-Truth by Evan Davis; Post-Truth by Matthew d’Ancona; Post-Truth by James Ball | Saturday Review | The Times & The Sunday Times
The truth about the post-truth age - Financial Times

The issues go much further, though.

This blog has already considered a couple of related topics:
Futures Forum: "Seeking truth in public life is the citizen’s responsibility"
Futures Forum: Fake news, the UK general election and local news

And we are going to be going to into much scarier territory:
Virtual reality is coming. What does that mean for post-truth news? - Reaction

It isn't 'just politics' which is being infected by the post-truth world:
Lies and chatbots are also undermining commerce - Raconteur

And we can't simply say it's 'them' who have got us into this mess:
Matthew d’Ancona on the post-truth age - We can’t just blame politicians for the post-truth age we live in - slate.com

The New European carried an excerpt from D'Ancona's book earlier in the year - focussing on 'citizenship':

(1) Marlon Brando in Apocalyose Now (2) A young resident of Prague climbs onto a Soviet T-54 tank 1968 (3) President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (4) Martin Luther King Jnr Photo:Getty/ TopFoto of change. 

In the second part of our exclusive serialisation of his new book Post Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back, MATTHEW D’ANCONA explains how the tide can be turned back on our age of distrust


July 7-July 13, 2017

In Apocalypse Now, Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz asks Martin Sheen’s Willard to tell his son all he has seen at his Cambodian compound: ‘Everything I did, everything you saw, because there’s nothing that I detest more than the stench of lies. And if you understand me, Willard, you will do this for me.’

Dubious a role model as Kurtz surely is, he reminds us that lies contaminate all they touch – including, in his case, basic sanity.

The greatest peril of the Post-Truth era is that our sense of smell has failed us. We have become indifferent or inured to ‘the stench of lies’, resigned to the malodorous atmosphere of competing truth claims. To put it another way: the flames of democratic collapse are not yet consuming our society. But our collective smoke alarm is faulty.

Conceivably, it may be reactivated by the experiences that lie ahead. Umberto Eco argued that realism would always reassert itself when we encountered ‘lines of resistance’. We cannot walk through walls, survive underwater without oxygen, or drive through a dead-end. Politics and culture have their equivalents. The votes for Brexit and for Trump were fed by reactionary sentiment but also – definitively – by an insistence upon change.

Whatever else happens in this particular presidency and this particular rearrangement of Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe, the expectations raised on both sides of the Atlantic cannot possibly be satisfied. When the promise of transformation fails and the public encounters its own ‘lines of resistance’ – a moment of maximum social danger – it will be a civic duty of great urgency to assert the value of truth in political debate.

What cannot be assumed is that this will happen of its own accord, as an organic response to disenchantment. If anything, political disappointment is the handmaiden of Post-Truth, a solvent of trust and a cue to further tribal huddling. The task cannot wait. It is much too pressing to be postponed sine die. If the truth is to reclaim its position of priority in our culture, we must put it there.

At the heart of this challenge is the notion of citizenship. In two specific respects, the twentieth century eroded that ancient concept of conjoined rights and responsibilities.

In spite of persistent revisionist claims to the contrary, the dramatic expansion of the state after the Second World War was necessary as a civilising force to enable the spread of education, healthcare and welfare provision. If anything, twentyfirst century conservatives are rediscovering the merits of government – at least in principle – after decades of promises to ‘roll back its frontiers’.

But there is no denying the flipside of the state’s growth in the past 70 years – which is the partial infantilisation of the public it serves. As much as the modern electorate despises politicians, it still turns to them reflexively for solutions to everything. Our instinctive response to a problem is to say: ‘they should do something about that’. But who are ‘they’? ‘They’ used to be ‘us’.

This delegation of civic responsibility to the very political class we claim to deplore has been compounded by a quite distinct trend, most associated with, though not confined to, governments of the centre right. The reframing of public services as retail products, and of patients, parents and passengers as customers has not only blurred the boundary between the state and the private sector. It has also made citizenship increasingly indistinguishable from consumerism.

What are euphemistically called ‘flexible labour practices’, zero-hour contracts and the rise of the gig economy, have tended to strip work of its centrality to human experience. The conventions of the lifetime career are long gone. Automation and outsourcing now threaten the very future of work – or so it seems.

What remains is consumption: no bad thing in itself, until it starts to define us. When the things you can buy online matter more to you than the things you can do in your neighbourhood; when you communicate with the social media ‘friends’ you never meet more than you see your real friends; when your notion of the ‘public space’ is confined to the screen in your hand: all this removes the sinew from citizenship. It encourages the passivity that is so important to Post-Truth.

Statesmanship can and has made a difference. Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats were an appeal to civic spirit, rooted in an insistence upon the sovereignty of truth. As he put it on May 27, 1941: ‘The pressing problems that confront us are military and naval problems. We cannot afford to approach them from the point of view of wishful thinkers or sentimentalist. What we face is cold, hard fact.’

Sound public policy can play a part in the resistance to Post-Truth. It is encouraging, for instance, that the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee of the House of Commons, under the chairmanship of Damian Collins, has been swift to launch an inquiry into fake news and its ‘threat to democracy’.

The ‘Nudge’ school of behavioural economics has also shown that government can steer citizens away from misinformation towards fact-based decisions – about health, personal finance, the environment and nutrition – through encouragement rather than the blunt instrument of legislation and regulation.

It has been argued, more provocatively, that there are cases when government has a duty to ignore the objections of the misinformed minority – a duty often cited in the case of compulsory fluoridation – and to take action ‘mandating protection from the dangers of misinformed activity’.

But even the most ardent champions of Jeffersonian democracy concede that there is no glibly paternalistic answer to PostTruth. Indeed, how could there be? Leadership may be a necessary condition
But – especially in an age of distrust – it is no longer sufficient (if it ever was, at least in democratic societies). As Martin Luther King wrote in his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ (1963), indifference is the greatest challenge to those who speak the truth:

The Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’ ... Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

In a few majestic sentences, King captured the principal psychological barrier that confronts any agent of change. The story of mankind is the story of the battle between indifference and commitment, within people as well as between them.

For many, conformity is the default position. The parapet is there for a reason: so you don’t stick your head above it. Inertia is the safe option – until it isn’t. Which is to say that we often regret our earlier passivity only when it is too late.

Of this much we can be sure. The renewal of citizenship will not be imposed from above. If people want an end to the Post-Truth era, they must will it themselves. If, having encountered its disagreeable consequences (Eco’s ‘lines of resistance’), they want a change, they must demand it. The phrase ‘people power’ has been debased by overuse, but it is not without meaning. In John le Carré’s novel The Secret Pilgrim, the veteran spymaster George Smiley spells out the facts of the matter to a youthful audience:

It was man who ended the Cold War in case you didn’t notice. It wasn’t weaponry, or technology, or armies or campaigns. It was just man. Not even Western man either, as it happened, but our sworn enemy in the East, who went into the streets, faced the bullets and the batons and said: we’ve had enough ... And the ideologies trailed after these impossible events like condemned prisoners, as ideologies do when they’ve had their day. Because they have no heart of their own. They’re the whores and angels of our striving selves.

There is no romance in this. The revolution of 1989 was the end of a 72 year nightmare, a long haul of cataclysmic suffering, oppression and vanquished resistance. Apartheid exacted an astonishing cost before its fall. And not all popular movements end well, or coherently: one has only to think of the Prague Spring of 1968 or its Arab counterpart in 2011.

But Smiley’s point stands. The only reliable engines of change are citizens themselves. The US Republican Party would not have been transformed as it has been without the organisational power of the Tea Party. The UK Labour Party would not have shifted as it has to the left without the grass-roots energy of the group Momentum. The respective impact of the Occupy movement and Jubilee Debt Campaign is also instructive.

Whatever you think of these specific movements, concentrate upon the form, rather than the content. It is not hard to imagine a similar, loose-knit alliance arising in response to Post-Truth and to the damage it is already doing to our civic fabric: #TellUsTheTruth. The clarion-call ‘don’t mourn – organise!’ is usually associated with the left. But its application need not be confined to any particular ideology.

At the very least, we must affirm the truth in a commanding fashion, instead of merely repeating the lie by denying it. Rationality should be matched by imagination and innovation. If Post-Truth is to be defied and defeated, the endeavour must be collective, sustained and stubborn. There will be setbacks, twists and turns, and moments of exasperation. But if the truth still matters to us as a civilisation this is not a task we can shirk.

■ Matthew D’Ancona is a journalist and author. His latest book Post Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back is published by Ebury (£6.99)

The New European July 7-July 13, 2017

No comments: