The post-truth, pre-truth society
By Rob Slane
As we enter a new year, one thing we can say for certain about the old year is that, in terms of unexpected political and geopolitical changes, it was truly breathtaking. Here in England, there was the Brexit vote to leave the European Union. The British government and much of the media did just about everything they could to prevent it and then were genuinely shocked by the result. Then there was the defeat of Hillary Clinton at the hands of Donald Trump, and again the elites neither saw it coming, nor seemed to know how to react once reality set in.
But behind these seismic shifts in the political landscape, an even bigger story has been brewing. For the mainstream media, 2016 was an Emperor’s New Clothes year—a year when many of the biggest newspapers and TV outlets were exposed as being not only completely wrong, but in many cases simply mouthpieces for the global elite. However, rather than learning anything from the experience, it seems that their response has been to double down on the same strategy, as if doubling down on failed practices would produce anything but more failure.
So in the wake of Mr. Trump’s victory, those same organizations who had been so biased in their pre-election coverage hit back by creating the notion of “fake news” and “fake news sites” with the assertion that we are now in a “post-truth” society.
Now I happen to agree that there is a lot of “fake news” out there. The rise of the internet and social media has brought with it a host of sites that often aren’t very diligent in their fact checking, along with others that deliberately mislead. But it is crucial to understand that it is not they who are the biggest problem. Rather, the mainstream media themselves have become purveyors of “fake news” to such an extent that it is often difficult, if not impossible, to believe anything they tell us.
One of the most instructive ways to see this in action is to go online and watch one of the State Department’s daily briefings. These events are attended by a number of journalists, representing not just U.S. media, but organizations from around the world. I have watched footage from these events many times, and the striking thing is that only two journalists—Matt Lee from the Associated Press and RT’s Gayane Chichakayan—ever ask anything even remotely challenging, while the rest generally just sit there like scribes, dutifully scribbling down the line that the spokesman feeds them, then going off to report what they heard without further question.
Implicitly assuming that the government line is by definition the truth ought to raise the hairs on the back of the neck of all but the most naive. Governments do not, as a general rule, have a great track record of doing good and speaking truth at all times. The relationship of government and media ought not to be the relationship of teachers to scribes—“We’ll teach you what is going on, and you go and then tell the people”—but rather one of seeking the truth and speaking the truth to power—that is, calling government and officials to account, especially when those in power are abusing their position.
Unfortunately, the mainstream media have not only been failing to do this for quite some time, but have ended up simply repackaging government’s propaganda. In the vacuum they have left, a multitude of alternative news sites have emerged to do the job that the mainstream should be doing, and the reaction has been barely concealed, and often quite unhinged, fury.
For example, the Washington Post ran an article in November where they referenced a group of “anonymous experts” called PropOrNot, which had gathered a list of 200 websites that were “disseminating Russian propaganda.” Reading through their list is somewhat entertaining, because it includes (irony alert) “ex-KGB agents” such as former congressman Ron Paul; the Catholic libertarian Lew Rockwell; Paul Craig Roberts, former U.S. assistant secretary of the Treasury for economic policy under Ronald Reagan; and David Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, also under Reagan. If ever there was a “fake news” story—and an absurd one at that—this was it.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that it was published by the same paper which admitted that in the run-up to the second Gulf war its coverage was lopsided at best. There were hundreds of front page stories in the Post carrying the “weapons of mass destruction” narrative, which later became so controversial. Stories by the Post’s own editors which called the evidence into question were relegated to the back pages. The Post’s own review featured striking admissions by writers and editors. “I was part of the groupthink.” “There was an attitude among editors: Look, we’re going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?” “We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power.”1
So this is where we’re at: The mainstream media, which should be speaking the truth to power and asking questions of government, appears to be so entrenched within the camp of the globalist elites that it has no intention of holding anyone to account (although that rule has apparently been suspended for the duration of the Trump presidency). In response to this, alternative media and news sites have appeared, some of which are doing their best to tell the truth, others which are not. But the result is confusion, and it is now more difficult than ever to know who and what to believe.
Doesn’t it sound rather like this:
Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away; for truth has stumbled in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter. (Isaiah 59:14)
Truth has indeed stumbled in the public squares, where those who should be holding the ones in power accountable have often turned out to be in cahoots with them. The vacuum they have created is being filled by a number of alternatives, and the result is a lot of noise, with uprightness hardly getting a look in. And even if it does rear its head, we have become so used to “fake news” that we have no idea whether to accept the truth as genuine or not.
None of this should surprise us. I wrote last year about how Hegelian Dialecticism destroys the notion of absolute truth by constantly “pushing the antithesis” and creating confusion. This strategy is deliberate, and the ramifications are enormous for every sphere of life, as Francis Schaeffer described well a generation ago:
Today not only in philosophy but in politics, government, and individual morality, our generation sees solutions in terms of synthesis and not absolutes. When this happens, truth, as people have always thought of truth, has died.2
Of course the truth has died not only in the media, but, as Schaeffer points out, throughout society. The underlying reason why this has happened is because as a culture we decided to abandon the idea of objective truth in favor of subjectivism. Why should it then surprise us to see the confusion this was bound to bring confronting us on every side?
Is this then a post-truth society? In a sense, yes it is, but it is also a pre-truth society. On the one hand it is post-truth because we are coming out the other end of that catastrophic experiment called Post-Modernism, where everyone was supposed to utter those cynical words of Pilate, “What is Truth?”, and where we couldn’t possibly say that there were any right or wrong answers. Now we find that there was something called truth after all, but, because we have previously rejected it, we have no idea where to find it or what it looks like.
So this is also a pre-truth society. Humans just cannot live in a world without absolutes and the uncertainties this kind of life brings for very long. The more the culture unravels, the more people will abandon the Post-Modern goo they have been sold, and look for truth and certainty.
We are entering a transition period, but it is highly unlikely to be either smooth or swift. When people who have abandoned objectivity for subjectivity start groping around for truth and certainty, they are very likely to grab at more falsehoods. These may well be falsehoods dressed up as truth—as opposed to Post-Modern relativistic falsehoods—but they will be falsehoods nonetheless.
As Christians, and therefore image-bearers of Jesus, who is The Truth, our job is twofold. First, we must keep drawing people to The Truth (capital T) both by our words and by consistent, upright living. Second, we must seek truth in the public squares, speak truth in the public squares, and pray for truth to stumble no longer in the public squares, but that the God of Truth (Isaiah 65:16) will in His grace cause uprightness to enter once more.
Rob Slane lives with his wife and six home-educated children in Salisbury, England. He is the author of The God Reality: A Critique of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, contributes to the Canadian magazine Reformed Perspective, and blogs on cultural issues from a Biblical perspective at www.theblogmire.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @theblogmire.
- “The Post on WMDs,” by Howard Kurtz. Thursday, August 12, 2004. <washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A58127-2004Aug11.html>
- How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture, Crossway Books, 1976, p163
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