Dialectics of truthiness
In the post-truth era, the politician talks out of his arse and his followers think with their guts
So, “post-truth” has entered the lexicon. And not just via the boffins at the Oxford English Dictionary, who have made it their word of the year for 2016, but also via our own prime minister, who this week dismissed Bill Shorten’s attempts to elicit some answers about the Bell Group affair and Senator George Brandis’ role in it as “the absolute embodiment of post-truth politics”.
Actually, I think that title’s taken; but let’s leave Donald Trump to one side for a moment and reflect on Turnbull’s rhetorical manoeuvre. For in deploying the post-truth meme in this way the PM has given a good indication, not only of how it will be deployed in the future, but also of the inseparability of post-truth politics from its supposed alternative.
The first thing to say about post-truth politics is that the phrase itself is problematic. Concepts depend for their coherence on what they are not, on their opposites. And since the opposite of post-truth politics is truthful politics, or the politics of truth, we seem to be in danger of painting a rosier picture of “the art of the possible” than the historical record will support. Readers can pick their own examples of political lying and dissimulation, from Watergate to Iran-Contra to children overboard. I simply make the point that the post-truth era is not quite the anomaly it’s made out to be.
True, there is a distinction to be made between the kind of politics practised by Trump, or indeed by Pauline Hanson, and the politics of the recent past. Trump and Hanson are not liars in the sense that, say, Richard Nixon was a liar. Nor do they merely dissimulate in the manner of a Scott Morrison. Rather they are “bullshitters” in the sense defined by Harry Frankfurt in On Bullshit: people for whom the truth is not sufficiently interesting to warrant either ventilation or concealment. (The bullshit statement, Frankfurt writes, “is grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true”.) As for their more enthusiastic supporters – their thinking seems to be characterised by the phenomenon known as “truthiness”, defined by the American Dialect Society as “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true”. It seems to me that what we’re calling the post-truth era is one in which these phenomena come together. The politician talks out of his arse and his followers think with their guts.
So, yes, we are in different territory. But we make a mistake if we think that this territory can be analysed in isolation. Like the Murray-Darling basin, this is a phenomenon that runs through many different terrains; and what goes on upstream is essential to what happens further down.
Take the case of the US president-elect. Trump is not a black swan event, and his politics didn’t appear ex nihilo. His nativism and isolationism are a response, however obscene and ridiculous, to 40 years of neoliberal economics that have driven down wages, undermined security, and pumped up state and personal debt. Similarly, his intellectual “style” and the enthusiasm with which it is received are a reaction against the slick politicking of the political class that made this happen, the Clintons more than anyone. The same goes for Brexit and Marine Le Pen and any number of demagogues now cluttering up the scene: it isn’t just the establishment and its policies that are being rejected, but the style of politics in which they come served.
In short: there is a dialectical relationship between the politics of the post-truth era and the politics it is supposed to have supplanted.
The reaction of some politicians and political “insiders” to the rise of Trumpism reveals that dialectic in action. Observe, for example, the way some commentators will deplore Trump’s comments about rigged elections or Barack Obama’s birth certificate and then discuss coolly which of his election commitments he’s likely to drop or “walk back” or whatever, as if nothing could be more natural than that the next US president would say one thing in the election campaign and then do another on the other side of it. The cynicism runs so deep it is no longer identifiable as such. We no longer expect politicians to be honest or to follow through on their policies; we ask only that they are not so brazen that politics itself is revealed as a sham.
For politicians to invoke the idea of “post-truth” must therefore count as an irony. To do it while defending Senator George Brandis, a man whose own relationship with the truth is (let’s say) less straightforward than it might be, is enough to make a cat laugh.
But that’s contemporary politics for you: old-style politics, more or less.