12 Dec Trump, Lippmann, Dewey and Our Misguided Faith in F-Words
CHIANG MAI. Three words that I find recycling in various repetitions: “fascism,” “facts” and “fake.” I’d like to take these words on one by one and suggest that in our attempts to do the right thing, be might be doing a lot of damage to values that we hold dear. (And by “we” I mean progressives, liberals, my people, those who I feel are in danger of doing a disservice to such values.)
Beginning with the deployment of “fascism,” Rolling Stone for example (there are countless examples, usually clickable rants from famous entertainers) warns us that “if you were to imagine what impending American fascism would look like, you couldn’t place the pieces on the board any more neatly than they’ve been placed in the last year.” In the next paragraph writer Jesse Berney asks how far this fascism will go and speculates that the first target might be his own industry. Could Trump “start tossing journalists in jail?”
While I recognize the concern, which is larger than journalists, there are many flaws in such speculation. First, Trump would have to go to extraordinary lengths to see this happen. It would require a total dismantling of the various legal standards that are the foundation of the American system plus the complicity on behalf of the public. Could these things happen? It’s unlikely. And this unlikelihood is the real danger in using the word. What happens when he doesn’t start publicly shattering the foundations of American jurisprudence? What happens when he does nothing that is fascist and instead just does what is far more likely: doing awful things, awful things to the planet, to civil rights, to human rights and decency? These awful things cannot be named so easily as “fascist.” And in our lazy tendency to quickly name things into Category X we’ve missed the point. The bigger fears are not fascism, but that he will use legal means to gradually alter laws and set new precedents. That’s not fascism, that’s policy.
This leaves us empty of nouns and grappling with various adjectives. What is the name for this nebulous dismantling? We’ve jumped out with the F-word and it turned out to not be that. Once we’ve lost the noun “fascism” we’ve granted validity to its negation: See, he didn’t jail anyone, he’s not fascist! And the only thing left, once the fascism tag has been drained of its validity, is normalization. And normalization is the biggest thing to worry about with Trump: acceptance that this is how things are.
The other F-word I see is “facts.” I’ve written about this before, but since liberals tend to have no God as a guiding force, they place their faith in Science to fill the gap. Science will save us; facts will save us. Facts are real—they are out there, testable, provable. As with science the method toward facts requires validity. They need a legitimate organization to produce and manage facts so they may be factual. I cannot be there to count every vote, but someone is there validating every vote to find out if it is a legitimate vote. To know why votes went the way they did, we have a legitimate organization gathering data and analytics to show us in chart or pie-graph form why votes went the way they did.
There are several problems with facts, but the main one is that their methodology discounts the conditions under which facts are produced, both in the vagaries and infinite swirl of human behavior and thought that gives rise to any fact, plus the method that aims to isolate objects of data for study. Facts are not the beginning of knowledge; they are the result of conditions that give rise to their appearance as phenomena. And as any philosopher or psychologist will tell you, what is apparent is not the extent of what is real. Facts deny the unconscious and the unseen and they tend to mask over the resonances that permeate any individual fact that emerges.
This brings us to our third F-word: “fake.” Liberals are latching onto this word to battle what is a very real and dangerous problem: that beliefs are formed by inaccurate statements of events. As Heidegger writes in his book on logic, it is an Aristotelian logosdisconnect, where the statement doesn’t accord to the truth. The desire here is for legitimacy, which drops us into a faith in corporate media, the safe zone for unfake facts. We give faith to media because the media is an organizational tool of legitimacy. The problem here is that its legitimacy is not grounded on facts, rather that facts provide the basis to legitimize itself, its own institution. “Objectivity” is the lifeblood of journalism. Without it the paper, the news channel, the website makes no income and no capital flows through it. Is it any wonder that Hillary Clinton is speaking out against the problem of fake news? If things had gone her way, and only legitimate news did the coverage, the media conglomerates would be able to filter their version of information, a version that is fundamentally tied to advertising income and audience numbers, which serves her interests as a corporate politician. Why was the media coverage so obsessed with Trump? Ratings and advertising revenue. The head of CBS admitted it himself. Why was the media coverage so aligned with Clinton? Why did I not hear about Bernie Sanders’ ideas on CNN or MSNBC? Why did I not hear about Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline on CNN or MSNBC? Demographics and a managing of consensus. Neither of the latter two events generated wealth for the broadcaster, so the facts were suppressed. I know, I watched the news. But had I only watched legitimate news I wouldn’t have become aware of Sanders’ platform or learned about Standing Rock. This came from Facebook links to what are now considered fake news outlets. And yet both were real events.
So, taking all of this together, we have to remember that it is not facts but the conditions-of-fact-generation that is the ground of whatever we might consider fascist or fake or factual in the arena of public opinion.
If all this sounds like a bunch of bullshit, consider looking into the 1920s debates between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey, both giants in the formation of American social and political thinking. It is well worth reading both Lippmann’s Public Opinion and Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems in full. Lippmann is the better known of the two in this particular battle, and indeed he’s considered the victor in the media world, a kind of Ayn Rand for news corporations. To give a sense of the debate, I’m going to reference this summary site, which does a fair job. But its really worth reading both primary sources and deciding for oneself. (And if you want a fantastic scholarly look, I highly recommend this John Durham Peters essay, which was hugely influential on me as a wee masters’ student.)
Lippmann quite rationally argued that the public could not be trusted to be active democratic participants. “In his view, the most feasible alternative to such democracy consisted of a technocracy in which government leaders are guided by experts whose objectives and disinterested knowledge go beyond the narrow views and the parochial self-interests of the average citizens organized in local communities. Lippmann saw advocates of participatory democracy as romantic and nostalgic individuals who idealized the role of the ignorant masses to address public affairs and proposed an unrealistic model for the emerging mass society.” Sound like a particular argument? Perhaps the prevailing liberal notion that legitimate institutions and authoritative fact-generation should temper the chaos of fake ideas? If you like this view, you may be a Lippmannite.
Dewey was also a believer in facts, and for my part I don’t entirely buy into his counter-argument, but he advocated a participatory role on the part of the public that goes beyond elections and includes discussion, an evolution of education and a truly free press. He proposed that “policies should remain a public trust which must not be manipulable by private interests.” This, Dewey admitted, is difficult. Democracy is messy. And I wonder what he would have thought of Facebook, not only as a private corporation that is the single most popular form of public deliberation, but that such deliberation is entirely passive. It is fair then to question Dewey’s faith, a faith that the people will do the right thing. One might even today say he’s wrong. After all, we got Clinton and Trump, and Trump won the presidency.
But a closer look at his critique offers another view: Our problem is not that people are stupid, it is that the institutions of authority and capitalism have turned us into consumers rather than participants. And this is where doing the right thing is polluted by such conditions. We begin our participation at the voting booth—which legitimizes existing and corrupt structures—and call it a day. We educate our young people to be entrepreneurs, singular heroes. We teach to tests and quantify thought and wonder why we accept the data that flows into our news feed, into our souls. We are passive in our involvement. This passivity is often named as “activism” when one goes through the legitimate channels of participation, as if emailing a congressman does anything to break the stranglehold of corporate democracy.
I would like to think that Dewey would tell us that being active citizens is not about feeding corporate interests and legitimizing corrupt structures of media and democracy. It comes rather by moving our bodies and minds, twisting them in uncomfortable ways, resisting placid consumption. Our democratic problem is a philosophical problem, not a structural one. Movements like Occupy Wall Street and Standing Rock are physical, corporeal activities that require people to sacrifice their bodies. But if we cannot personally do this, we must at least be willing to sacrifice our thoughts, to live differently, consume differently.. to give our thoughts over to other pathways and not depend on the gathering of information but to become agitated by other discourses.. to create things, not for one’s brand but to agitate against branding of all kinds, not to make a name for ourselves but to lose oneself. This will not offer us any more knowledge, but it might just reformulate the “ground” upon and within which we think. What we live and breathe are not facts but environments, territories, immanent planes. It is out of these conditions—not objects, images or facts but as Dewey’s friend William James wrote, the flux of relations—that new thought can grow.