Authoritarianism relies on imposing belief over evidence. (More)
“Truth is a lost game in my country”
Writing for the Guardian, Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran describes the depth of a post-truth environment:
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s administration is not inclined to be deflected by crisis. Immediately after [the December 10th bombings that killed 47 people], Burhan Kuzu, a law professor and senior adviser to the president, went on social media to celebrate constitutional proposals that would expand the president’s powers, and maybe see Erdoğan in power until 2029 – “so no system change can happen without blood”.
After the 28 June attack on Atatürk airport, the diversionary tactic was to mask the national shock with celebrations of a newly built bridge. The scene of the latest terrorist attack has been quickly woven into the narrative. Henceforth it will be known as the Hill of Martyrs.
This refashioning of a post-truth, post-fact Turkey has not happened overnight. The process has involved the skillful and willful manipulation of narratives. We gave up asking the astonished questions “How can they say or do that?” some time ago. Truth is a lost game in my country.
Like many of history’s Strongmen – more on that below – Erdoğan uses shiny baubles to distract conversation while he cements his power.
“The magic word was ‘respect’”
The “skillful and willful manipulation of narratives” that Temelkuran documents in Turkey is disturbingly familiar:
It started 15 years ago, with a phenomenon that will now be familiar to you, when intellectuals and journalists reacted to a nascent populism with the self-critical question: “Are we out of touch?” To counter that possibility, they widened the parameters of public debate to include those who were said to be representatives of “real people”. We thought our own tool, the ability to question and establish truth, would be adequate to keep the discourse safe. It wasn’t. Soon we were paralysed by the lies of populism, which always sounded more attractive than our boring facts.
We found, as you are now finding, that the new truth-building process does not require facts or the underpinning of agreed values. We were confronted – as you are being confronted – by a toxic vocabulary: “elite”, “experts”, “real people” and “alienated intellectuals”. The elite, with experts as mouthpieces of that oppressive elite, were portrayed as people detached from society, willing to suppress the needs, choices and beliefs of “real people”.
Events moved quickly. Those who believed experts should be excluded from the truth-building process, and that the facts were too boring to be bothered with, became the most active participants in a reconstruction of their own truth. The magic word was “respect”, with the demand that the elite, since they were so out of touch, should respect real people’s truth.
The 2016 elections were an 18-month media homage to American Rage that focused almost exclusively on how white men are being “left behind.” Never mind that white men have lower unemployment rates and higher median incomes than almost every other demographic group. Never mind that most elected officials as well as federal and state judges, top business leaders, and journalists are white men. Even ‘liberal bastions’ like Hollywood or the New York Times are dominated by white men.
Yet to hear many white men tell it, they don’t get enough “respect”. And those who disagree, like researchers who study data rather than anecdotes, are “elites” ignoring the “economic apocalypse” of white men. That last link is an article by progressive Krystal Ball, a testament to how effectively the post-truth narrative of aggrieved white men has shoved aside facts and evidence.
“Information warfare is not about creating an alternate truth, but eroding our basic ability to distinguish truth at all”
Today … Russia is little more than a ghastly hybrid of an overblown police state and a criminal network with an economy the size of Italy – and the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
Even Russian policy hands, raised on the Western understanding of traditional power dynamics, find the implications of this hard to understand. This Russia does not aspire to be like us, or to make itself stronger than we are. Rather, its leaders want the West – and specifically NATO and America – to become weaker and more fractured until we are as broken as they perceive themselves to be. No reset can be successful, regardless the personality driving it, because Putin’s Russia requires the United States of America as its enemy.
We can only confront this by fully understanding how the Kremlin sees the world. Its worldview and objectives are made abundantly clear in speeches, op-eds, official policy and national strategy documents, journal articles, interviews, and, in some cases, fiction writing of Russian officials and ideologues. We should understand several things from this material.
First, it is a war. A thing to be won, decisively – not a thing to be negotiated or bargained. It’s all one war: Ukraine, Turkey, Syria, the Baltics, Georgia. It’s what Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s ‘grey cardinal’ and lead propagandist, dubbed ”non-linear war” in his science fiction story “Without Sky,” in 2014.
Second, it’s all one war machine. Military, technological, information, diplomatic, economic, cultural, criminal, and other tools are all controlled by the state and deployed toward one set of strategic objectives.[…]
Third, information warfare is not about creating an alternate truth, but eroding our basic ability to distinguish truth at all. It is not “propaganda” as we’ve come to think of it, but the less obvious techniques known in Russia as “active measures” and “reflexive control”. Both are designed to make us, the targets, act against our own best interests.
It turns out that video is very popular among Trump supporters. Never mind that Russia’s economy has been horrible since Putin took office. He got that damn pen back …
… just like the Strongman-elect made Carrier keep 900 jobs here, at least for a year or two, and humiliated Boeing into, well, probably no change in the contract.
Like the shiny baubles after Turkish terrorist attacks, these reality TV stunts distract the media and our political debate … while the Strongman-elect all but explicitly promises to use the White House to enrich his family business empire.
“An ineffective and destructive system of government”
Academics debate whether the Strongman-elect is indeed a fascist – the consensus seems to be that we need to wait and let him establish a one-party totalitarian regime before we can be sure – but his rise to power parallels that of Benito Mussolini and key voices in his alt-right base view democracy with contempt:
In 2007, a writer with the pen name Mencius Moldbug (née Curtis Yarvin) started a blog called Unqualified Reservations. He proceeded to write essays that would inspire a whole movement of online political writers. The neoreactionaries drew inspiration from earlier paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan and Joseph Sobran but with a tech-y twist. Moldbug, for one, is a veteran Bay Area programmer currently working on a startup he cofounded called Urbit.
And the core contention of Moldbug and the other NRx thinkers is one that’s been common in technolibertarian circles for a long time: Democracy is a failure.
“Democracy is – as most writers before the 19th century agreed – an ineffective and destructive system of government,” Moldbug writes. Moldbug doesn’t actually like the term “democracy.” He prefers “demotism,” or rule of the people, a label under which he sweeps modern-day developed democracies like the US or Western Europe but also the former Soviet bloc, Nazism, and fascism.[…]
The purpose of government, in the view of neoreactionaries, isn’t to represent the will of the people. It’s to govern well, full stop. “From the perspective of its subjects, what counts is not who runs the government but what the government does,” Moldbug explains. “Good government is effective, lawful government. Bad government is ineffective, lawless government. How anyone reasonable could disagree with these statements is quite beyond me. And yet clearly almost everyone does.”
And democratic government, the neoreactionaries insist, is not effective, lawful government. Because the will of the people is arbitrary and varying, it cannot have the consistency of real, durable law, and it creates incentives for wasteful and, worse still, left-wing government.
The foundation for that contempt for democracy is the white male victimhood narrative, where “government is ineffective, lawless” unless it advances white male dominance.
“It may well be that more people will regard democracy as broken and unworthy of defense”
In an interview at Vox, historian Christopher Browning warns of Trump’s authoritarian impulses:
The alt-right is clearly into racial politics, and they clearly believe in a racial theory of history – that the white man is the creative source of value in the civilized world. They clearly believe – and preach – that the white race is threatened by impure outsiders. And they clearly have a broad ethnonationalist vision.
They’re pining for a kind of racial utopia, and their goal is to create it. This is very similar to racialized fascist movements of the past, including Nazism. I don’t think we can talk about this without acknowledging this.
For the moment, at least, most of these people aren’t preaching outright violence. They aren’t openly talking about being anti-democratic, even if Trump seems to have little appreciation for the role of a free press or political opposition more generally.
But all of that can change. If the polarization we have now continues, it may well be that more people will regard democracy as broken and unworthy of defense. Trump is especially dangerous for this reason. At his convention speech, he said “I alone” can solve things. This is explicitly anti-democratic, and a very dangerous game to play in this kind of climate.
I think Browning glosses over the explicitly anti-democracy rhetoric of the alt-right, as well as the GOP’s willingness use their governmental power to hamstring political opponents. That legislative coup in North Carolina prompted The Nation’s Ari Berman to write:
The pattern in North Carolina is clear: When Republicans win, they suppress the Democratic vote to solidify power in future elections. And when they lose, they rig the rules to prevent their opponents from being able to fairly exercise and maintain power. This is what happens in a dictatorship, not a democracy. And it’s a preview of what’s to come in Trump’s America.
I’ve written that Trump is the greatest threat to American democracy in our lifetime because, unlike his Democratic or Republican predecessors, he has little respect for basic democratic institutions like a free press or a fair election. But Trump is also such a threat because his party, as we’re seeing in North Carolina, has displayed the same brazen disregard for the will of the people. And now it will control the White House, the Congress, the courts, and two-thirds of state legislatures.
Again, such measures are only possible in a post-truth environment where fact-free conspiracy theories of “illegal voting” are accepted as excuses for disenfranchising your opponent’s voters.
“Now we don’t even have the chessboard”
The other week, in Copenhagen, I attended NewsXhange, an international gathering of the media to discuss redefining journalism when trust is at an all-time low. The opening symposium was titled “Are we out of touch?”. There to prove that indeed we were was a jubilant figure well known to you in Britain – the former UKIP leader Nigel Farage. You have no idea about real people, he said, before offering us some gracious lessons on how he saw real journalism. One by one, panelists and members of the audience sought to corner him with references to fact-checking and double fact-checking, to holding politicians to account and doing better journalism. They tried to embarrass him by calling him a xenophobe.
And as he spoke, I looked at the expressions on the faces in the audience, and recognised them. They were our faces from 15 years ago, amazed at his audacity, wondering: how can he say that? – unsure whether to mock his twisted logic or to take it seriously.
An analogy came to mind: that this is like trying to play chess with a pigeon. Even if you win within the rules, the pigeon will clutter up the pieces, and finally it will shit on the chessboard, leaving you to deal with the mess. Farage, having told us to “cheer up”, and that this was “not a funeral”, did exactly that. Having dumbfounded the audience, he announced – as if fleeing a boring party – that he was off to meet Donald Trump in Washington.
Be warned. For 15 years we played chess with the pigeon in Turkey, but now we don’t even have the chessboard. Some of you still have time to shape your future. Use it.
Photo Credit: Chris Carlson (AP)
Good day and good nuts