The phrase ‘post-truth’ was invented, it seems, about 10 years ago. As usual, books were published with it in the title five years later – by Matthew d’Ancona, Evan Davis, Julian Biaggini and others. Davis and d’Ancona used the language to defend the establishment. And so has Sam Leith this week in the Spectator in a piece about Russell Brand. The central assumption of these concerned establishment gate-keepers – those writers who keep the shutters on the Overton Window to prevent the breaking of the glass – is that Brexit, Trump, Climate Denialism, Vaccine Scepticism etc. are signs of favouring ‘emotion’, ‘clicks’, ‘monetisation’ over against ‘facts’, ‘evidence’ and ‘truth’.
We can understand why they write this way. But this way of seeing things is spectacularly unreflective. It is, in a word, reactionary. Not reactionary in the good sense of the word, but in the bad sense of the word, where it denotes a jerk of the knee. Sam Leith, for instance, jerks his knee against those who are at least questioning why it happens to be now that Russell Brand’s activities are being subject to first media and then police and legal scrutiny.
In the 1960s Hannah Arendt proposed that politics has never been about truth. If this is so, then the phrase ‘post-truth politics’, which has been used heavily in the last decade, is not a useful way of making sense. The establishment can use ‘post-truth politics’ as a way of stigmatising the sort of politics they dislike; they can also use it to imply that they are on the side of truth, facts, evidence, reason – all those high prestige winning-the-argument terms. But if Arendt is right – and she is right – then this is, in short, complete rubbish. The ostentatious anti-bullshitters are just producing a more sophisticated type of bullshit than the bullshitters they inveigh against.
But it is not sophisticated enough to see anything clearly, because it suffers from ideological contortion. Sometimes it seems to me that modern Europe and America are – the West is – nothing more than a sophisticated version of China. Russia, China and the rest are unsophisticated because they use old-fashioned methods: coercion, corruption, propaganda, intelligence. The West is sophisticated because when it wants to do a thing it goes through Public Opinion. Consider COVID-19, Climate Change, Rainbow Flags, all those delightful inverted methods of imposing order on us. The fact is that we, the free citizens of the West, believe this rubbish, and not only obey the rules but enforce them. No one anywhere else believes, even when they obey.
Let me try to get clear about what is going on with this thing called truth.
It is useful to turn to an extremely able Dutch political theorist called Frank Ankersmit. In a book entitled Political Representation, published in 2002, he made an exceptionally interesting contrast between two antitheses.
- The first antithesis is truth versus falsity.
- The second antithesis is wisdom versus folly.
The difference between them is very simple: Truth is absolutely right; falsity is absolutely wrong: so it is right that truth should destroy or eliminate falsity.
Wisdom, however, tolerates folly. This is because the fools might be right. It would not be very wise to destroy or eliminate folly. To destroy folly would suggest a lack of wisdom: since wisdom involves a good sense of how much reality humankind can bear. (T.S. Eliot: it cannot bear very much.)
- Truth, in other words, is divine or godlike.
- Wisdom, by contrast, is human-all-too-human.
These two antitheses involve a different attitude to good and evil. In terms of truth we seek the good, and must destroy or eliminate evil. In terms of wisdom we seek the good, but must live with evil, and its various acolytes – bad and ignorance and waste and corruption and decadence.
(One difference between the red pill brigade and the blue pill brigade is that the former adopts the truth/falsity antithesis to dismiss everything that is going on, while the latter adopts the wisdom/folly antithesis to try to explain everything that is going on. Both are valid. I’d say both are necessary.)
Now, Ankersmit says that in politics we should prefer the wisdom/folly antithesis. We should accept that our political opposition is not an enemy. We should not destroy or ostracise or cancel anyone. We should respect others. We should, as Adam Smith suggested, sympathise with others. We should, as Kant suggested, try to put ourselves in the position of others. And this is obviously part of our modern political sensibility. It is part of the Ofcom insistence on impartiality (spurious though this impartiality is in practice).
But there is a problem. The wisdom/folly antithesis is doubtless the basis of good politics – most of the time, certainly in normal times. Ankersmit recruits Burke to show that part of what Burke was saying in 1790 was that the revolutionaries were so sure of themselves because they chose truth/falsity over wisdom/folly, and hence had the justification they needed for war, terror and the guillotine.
The problem is that if we accept this analysis – that wisdom/folly should be preferred to truth/falsity – then we have no strong way of objecting to a political monopoly that claims to be based on truth. We have no way to oppose a consensus. We have no way of trying to object to corruption and conspiracy. We have no way of dealing with an emergency and the exceptional politics it throws up. We are, in short, and to quote Sam Leith against Sam Leith, “adrift in an entirely post-truth environment”.
Let it be said clearly. We have always, in politics, been adrift in an entirely post-truth environment. Read Plato’s Republic – the very first complete book about politics – to see how this is the oldest problem in politics. (Plato, too, like Matthew d’Ancona, Evan Davis and Sam Leith, wanted to defend truth from mere opinion: doxa in Greek.)
The reason this has become a problem in the last few centuries is because of the imperial expansion of politics. Since 1789 we have witnessed a vast politicisation of the world. And with that vast politicisation we have seen the usually admirable extension of the liberal antithesis of wisdom/folly into our daily politics. Toleration of others, justified opposition, and all that. But as the state has extended its activities beyond the usual ‘law and war’ of a hundred years ago, to health, education, and the entirety of what Germans call the ‘life-world’, creating secular religions of various sorts, and funding scholarship, so we have entered a new earth in which it is hard to tell the difference between the two things which Plato was extremely concerned to keep distinct.
The point is that before our modernity there was a world of truth/falsity outside or beyond the inner world of politics and wisdom/folly. In our modernity it is hard to tell the difference between them. For most of us there is only the monopolistic doxa of the mainstream institutions who are constitutionally incapable of recognising their own biases. Here we have the ideology of ‘settled science’ and ‘established consensus’: the world of the IPCC, the WHO, the Royal Society, Nature and Science, the Meteorological Office, the EU, the BBC, and other twisted-distorted-corrupt-established institutions. Including the Universities. This is a world in which politicians see no clear distinction between public service and private activity, pay for censorship by offering or withholding advertisement revenues, and behave conspiratorially in the service of mostly failing but sometimes successful corporate assaults on the mountainous possibility of monopolistic wealth.
A hundred years ago F.S. Oliver wrote a book on Walpole, a few chapters of which were excerpted for the sake of its maxims of government. In Politics and Politicians (1934) Oliver was giving us Machiavelli up to date, reminding us that politicians should not be expected to tell the truth, that politicians should not be despised for this, and that politics was one of the more meritorious ways of spending a life exactly because it was an education in a particular type of wisdom – practical wisdom. The problem is that we suffer from a press and perhaps a public which is incapable of making such a Machiavellian assessment. Our newspapers continually chastise politicians for inconsistency, for particular untruths and for the entire set of elisions, hypocrisies, frauds, pomposities. But this is the pot calling the kettle black: it is just a rival and unofficial set of opinions moving against and to some extent with the official opinions the government expects, hopes, bribes, tricks and forces us to have. The problem is that the press has almost no capacity or authority to assert truth. It is just a rival claim to relative wisdom: a balancing of the folly of the government with the folly of some of the vocal among the governed.
This would not matter much if politics were limited to law and war. But the extension of government has recently been overlaid by the techniques of technology and the culture that has seemed to accompany technology: namely, the culture of exquisite and immediate crisis, allied to the culture of continual and unexpected moral ‘outrage’ – synthetic or natural – and allied also to the culture of apparent scientific expertise. This last one is the real problem: that ‘science’ or ‘the science’ which has been corralled and corrupted by being subjected to political imperatives.
Let me be exact. The problem is that the political field – the field of wisdom/folly – has expanded. In expanding, like a red giant, it has encompassed other fields, including the great outer field of truth/falsity.
I do not expect politicians to tell the truth. I suppose I am Machiavellian about this. But I do expect politicians to leave the truth alone, and not to usurp truth/falsity for the sake of holding onto power and serving whatever interests they serve at any particular moment. I am not Machiavellian about that.
Now, this may be too fine a distinction: but I think anyone who 1. understands anything about politics and 2. shares my judgement of the politics since COVID-19, has to make such a distinction. If one is too Machiavellian, then one has no way of criticising the COVID-19 policy. And, indeed, alas, Ankersmit seems to have supported it. But if one is not Machiavellian at all, and perhaps too many people are not Machiavellian enough, then they tend to believe politicians, especially when flanked by scientists. The fact that Johnson’s words about COVID-19 are still ‘the narrative’ despite his own fate and reputation is a sign of how effective the entire trick was.
What we call ‘mainstream’ political culture is simply incapable of understanding the importance of a genuine, non-rhetorical, non-politicised insistence on truth, whether this truth is religious, as a sheer alternative, or, of course, scientific, in the sense of genuine, modest science: not the sculpted and politicised narrative of the Lancet, Nature, Science, the American Political Science Review and many others.
The ‘post-truth’ language is an attempt by the established wisdom/folly brigade to illegitimately use the language of ‘truth’ against any of us – including odd bods like Russell Brand – who are honestly trying to remember what ‘truth’ is so that we can resist the use of it against us.
Dr. James Alexander is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University in Turkey.