Saturday, November 29, 2014

Our Kind of Truth

NEW YORK – Rick Santorum, a former United States senator seeking the Republican Party’s nomination to challenge President Barack Obama this year, has been saying some very strange things about the Netherlands. Ten percent of all deaths in that country, he recently claimed, are from euthanasia, half of which are forced upon helpless patients. Old people are so frightened of being killed by homicidal doctors that they wear bracelets that read: “Do not euthanize me.”

In a way, Santorum’s canards must come as a relief to a country that has increasingly been in the news for outrageous statements by right-wing populists about Muslims and Greeks. Indeed, Santorum’s view of the Netherlands as a kind of progressive dystopia has a slightly old-fashioned ring to it nowadays.

The Dutch were nonetheless disturbed. Some in the country’s parliament even asked whether the foreign minister should lodge a complaint in Washington.

In fact, Santorum’s fantasies were swiftly refuted in the US itself. The Washington Post concluded that “there was not a shred of evidence to back up Santorum’s claims,” and found it “telling” that his campaign managers did not even bother to defend them. One US television station even apologized to a Dutch reporter in the name of the American people.

As the Post pointed out, there is no such thing as involuntary euthanasia in the Netherlands. The patient’s consent is essential, and at least two doctors must agree that the patient’s suffering is unbearable and beyond cure. Besides, the share of assisted deaths in Dutch mortality is nowhere near 10%. As for those bracelets, well…

But does any of this matter to Santorum’s followers? Probably not. Corrections from the “elitist” mainstream media are dismissed as enemy propaganda. As a blogger sympathetic to Santorum put it: “The Washington Post, as one would expect, attempted to discredit Santorum.”

It is disturbing, to say the least, that the most cogent refutations of bald-faced lies no longer make any impression. After all, a democracy cannot function without a public that is properly informed. Informing the public used to be the role of serious newspapers and television networks. Of course, not everything in the mainstream media is always true. Mistakes are made. News organizations have political biases, sometimes reflecting the views and interests of their owners.

But high-quality journalism has always relied on its reputation for probity. Editors, as well as reporters, at least tried to get the facts right. That is why people read Le Monde, The New York Times, or, indeed, the Washington Post. Filtering nonsense was one of their duties –amp#160;and their main selling point.

That has changed. Populist demagogues in politics and the mass media are doing everything they can to discredit the quality press as propaganda organs for left-wing elites who sneer at the views of ordinary Americans. Santorum pretends to speak for these people – that is, for a minority of Americans who are mostly white, provincial, highly religious, deeply conservative on cultural and social issues, and convinced that Obama and all Europeans are dangerous godless socialists.

The point is not whether Santorum is right or wrong factually. What he says “feels” right to his followers, because it conforms to their prejudices. And the Internet, having swamped the quality press, feeds and reinforces those prejudices, making it more difficult to distinguish the truth from lies.

The public is increasingly segmented into groups of likeminded people who see their views echoed back to them in blogs, comments, and tweets. There is no need to be exposed to different opinions, which are, in any case, considered to be propaganda. Indeed, Santorum’s new fame will afford him a rich career as a media demagogue, even if he fails as a politician.

The first people to argue that all truth is relative, and that all information is a form of propaganda that reflects society’s power relations, were far removed from the world inhabited by Santorum and his supporters. Several decades ago, a number of European and American intellectuals, often with a background in Marxism, developed a “post-modern” critique of the written word. We might think, they argued, that what we read in The New York Times or Le Monde is objectively true, but everything that appears there is, in fact, a disguised form of propaganda for bourgeois class interests.

There is no such thing, the post-modern critic believes, as independence of thought. Objective truth is an illusion. Everyone is promoting class interests of one kind or another. The real lie, in this view, is the claim of objectivity. What is necessary to change the world is not the truth, but another form of propaganda, promoting different interests. Everything is political. That is the only truth that counts.

It is unlikely that Rick Santorum, or many of his followers, have read any post-modern theorists. Santorum, after all, recently called Obama a “snob” for claiming that all Americans should be entitled to a college education. So he must surely loath writers who represent everything that the Tea Party and other radical right-wingers abhor: the highly educated, intellectual, urban, secular, and not always white. These writers are the left-wing elite, at least in academia.

But, as so often happens, ideas have a way of migrating in unexpected ways. The blogger who dismissed The Washington Post’s corrections of Santorum’s fictional portrayal of the Netherlands expressed himself like a perfect post-modernist. The most faithful followers of obscure leftist thinkers in Paris, New York, or Berkeley are the most reactionary elements in the American heartland. Of course, if this were pointed out to them, they would no doubt dismiss it as elitist propaganda.

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    1. CommentedWilliam Hampton

      Wow, I had not googled “The Revolution Will Not be Televised” in a long time. I have pointed people to this documentary in the past when it was not available. It is now available on youtube in 8 parts. I googled “Chavez: Inside the Coup” to find them. They are laid out in a way that makes it hard to find them all, but I did manage to find all of them. Here is the link to the first one: You should really try to watch them all.

    2. CommentedWilliam Hampton

      Ian, I could not have said it better myself. Of course that is not saying much. I have been saying for a long time that free press can be more dangerous than state owned in that it is more likely to be believed. Watch the documentary “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and you will see our main stream press for what it is. Of course you might have a hard time finding it in the U.S. I had to order it from England and watch it on my computer because of the region difference, but it was worth it.
      Think about this. Why is it that liberal is a dirty word to so many people? According the dictionary here is what it would take to be a liberal. You would need to be open minded, generous, favorable to progress or reform, favorable to or in accord with the concepts of maximum individual freedom possible, in favor of representa­tional forms of government rather than aristocrac­ies and monarchies and be against prejudice and bigotry. I would think that most Americans are liberal. Why is it that the media seems to have changed this definition­? I think that it is to divide the people. Divided people are easier to control. If people can not agree on anything, it is harder for them to organize. Look at the occupy movement as an example. It is pretty sad when you can not even be sure of the dictionary being a good reference. You should hear all of the reasons people give for the dictionary definition of liberal not being correct.

    3. CommentedCharlie Savelle

      "What is necessary to change the world is not the truth, but another form of propaganda, promoting different interests."

      In reference to social psychology, that's probably the most rational way of trying to influence opinion--because blank facts won't do. And a good way of steering away from bad ideology might just be simply looking to see what it does and accomplishes, and who it benefits most.

      It's obviously dangerous when you can't refute a position by referring to some references, and measurements. But the author shouldn't have brought the post-modernists into it. That's a sort of straw-person position, they're more sophisticated than that. That seems like a sort of Ghost Foucaultian position, but even Foucault writes on the basis of historical documents and dates.

    4. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      From the article: "There is no such thing, the post-modern critic believes, as independence of thought. Objective truth is an illusion. Everyone is promoting class interests of one kind or another. The real lie, in this view, is the claim of objectivity. What is necessary to change the world is not the truth, but another form of propaganda, promoting different interests. Everything is political. That is the only truth that counts..." This is not simply a political truth. We perceive the world totally subjectively, it does not matter if it is a certain political party or whether we agree with abortion, euthanasia, or who is a terrorist and who is a freedom fighter, whether Putin is a dictator or a national hero, and so on there is not one aspect of life we all see the same way. There is no absolute moral compass, or absolute truth in this world. And this is becoming a real problem today when we evolved into this closed, interconnected and highly interdependent system we exist in. Our inherent nature, upbringing, culture is not going to change, the "leopard cannot change its spots..." But if we understand we are all sitting on the same boat, which boat is sinking as we speak, we will understand that we will have to work together, first of all to keep the boat on the water and sailing, and if that is done than we can deal with our own individual calculations later, when we secured the wellbeing and optimal function of the whole system. We have a common goal, our survival and a mutual, sustainable future thus we have to work on that first. This is not so unprecedented, all professional sportsteams work that way, all are celebrities, millionaires on their own right, but when they have a common goal, they rise above their individuality, even hatred towards each other and work together, even making sacrificies for the team. And we can find multiple other examples in all parts of our lives. All we need is the understanding we are all locked into this interdependent system, and that our lives are interlinked. The rest is going to be self understanding.