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The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back

Matthew d’Ancona


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Guardian political columnist and former editor of the Spectator. He had an epiphany last year when he was recovering in hospital from a perforated ulcer compounded by abdominal sepsis: "I marvelled at the medical science that had brought me back from the brink: because the brink is a place where 'experts' - so often reviled these days - are just what you need."

What’s the big idea?

Post-truth came into being long before Trump, d’Ancona concedes. Anthropologists say we have been lying since early humans organised themselves in tribes. But in the 20th century humanity went shamelessly beyond just lying. French postmodernists argued there was no such thing as truth and objectivity, only power and interests. Unwittingly, the likes of Jean-François Lyotard were paving the way for Trump’s senior aide Kellyanne Conway.

You remember Conway. Earlier this year, her colleague, White House press secretary Sean Spicer, told the media that, contrary to photographic evidence, the crowd at Trump's inauguration was the largest ever. The following day Conway went on NBC's Meet the Press where host Chuck Todd told her that Spicer’s claim was a falsehood. "Don't be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck," she replied. "Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that." That Conway had the brazenness to use that oxymoron is symptomatic for d'Ancona of how we live now: in the post-truth world there is no stable verifiable reality, just an endless battle to define it.

How did we get here?

The post-truth era was made possible by Sigmund Freud. In psychoanalysis, claims d'Ancona, the imperative is to treat the patient successfully, irrespective of of the facts. This approach has gone beyond the privacy of the consulting room to infuse our whole culture. So what, you might argue? D'Ancona suggests the risk is that an ever-greater proportion of judgments and decisions will be banished to the realm of emotion: "Sharing your innermost feelings, shaping your life-drama, speaking from the heart: these pursuits are increasingly in competition with traditional forensic values." Truth, in other words, is not just the first casualty of war, but for d'Ancona the leading victim of the spread of therapeutic culture's values.

How do we get out?

Not long before his death, writes d’Ancona, George Orwell tried to clarify the meaning of his dystopian novel 1984, which imagined a society in thrall to a diabolical overseer called Big Brother wherein even the truths of mathematics can be replaced by "alternative facts" such as 2 + 2 = 5. "The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: don't let it happen," said Orwell. "It depends on you."

What this means for d'Ancona is that to keep the good things about our civilisation, we must fight. "This is not a battle," writes d'Ancona, "between liberals and conservatives. This is a battle between two ways of perceiving the world, two fundamentally different approaches to reality. Are you content for the central value of the Enlightenment, of free societies and of democratic discourse, to be trashed by charlatans - or not?"

Trumped up

During a February press conference, Trump said he had achieved "the biggest electoral college win since Ronald Reagan". NBC's Peter Alexander pointed out Obama had won more electoral college votes in 2008. Trump said: "I was talking about Republicans." Alexander retorted that George HW Bush had won more votes in 1988, and asked why, if the president was going to make such phoney claims, anyone should trust him. "I actually, I've seen that information around," blustered Trump. "But it was a very substantial victory, do you agree with that?"

Brexit bull

On 16 June last year, then Ukip leader Nigel Farage unveiled a poster of a huge queue of Syrian refugees alongside the headline "Breaking Point". Even Boris Johnson, the leave campaign's most famous spokesman, declared himself "profoundly unhappy with it". What was being insinuated was "that those who come to the UK are a bunch of freeloaders, depriving indigenous Britons of school places, housing and healthcare," writes d'Ancona. But he points out that these insinuations have been "comprehensively debunked" by Essex University sociology lecturer Neli Demireva who argues that "migrants tend to be highly-skilled on average, contribute substantially to the economy, and do not compete with natives for social housing. Moreover, there is no evidence that crime rates have been on the rise as a result of new immigration waves.")

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