A CONVENIENTLY forgotten aspect of the long, convoluted and unresolved saga of Brexit is the fact that the successful Leave campaign in 2016 was based on a stack of lies and a raft of other sins – prejudice, arrogance and ignorance among them. Electoral illegality and probable foreign interference should long ago have rendered the outcome null and void. But a strange deference to populism and an apparent fear of majoritarianism has allowed the questionable mantra of the ‘will of the people’ to prevail with little challenge. It is reinforced by the fashionable notion that ‘the wisdom of the crowd’ is worth more than the expertise of the well-informed and thoughtful.
Public life everywhere is increasingly influenced by fiction rather than fact, emotion rather than reason, and cavalier misuse of language. Objective truth, the essential ingredient of democracy, is now an endangered species under the onslaught of contempt for established expert knowledge and those who defend it. Objectivity has become victim to opinion; rational discourse is under threat.
This cancer comes from the Right, which has ironically hijacked New Left thinking that took a grip on the trendier reaches of academia in the 1960s and 1970s. It all boils down to relativism, the belief that everything is dependent on perception and a point of view. This is an ideology well suited to our age of subjectivity and narcissism in which ignorance is no bar to insistent demand for a public voice. The broadcast media demonstrates this endlessly and has been complicit in the misguided idea that a balance of opinion has to be struck in debate, regardless of the infinitely more important matter of balance of truth. The brazen liar apparently has the same right to public expression as the most assiduous and responsible commentator. Truth for many now depends simply on the beholder. This is indeed a revolutionary approach and it contains the seeds of civic chaos.
Once obligations to be well informed and to think rationally have been disposed of in favour of personal opinion and feelings, life becomes immeasurably easier. The inevitable result is simplistic answers, as Brexit so clearly demonstrates. Here, when objections are raised on intellectual, legal, practical and moral grounds among others, the retort is ‘just get on with it’. Any further argument quickly attracts the label ‘enemy of the people’ and often results in hate speech and harassment.
This is nihilism based on vacuous mass culture that values entertainment, attention-seeking so-called celebrities, and self-gratification above civic responsibility. It is subversive of progressive schools of thought of modern times: religious, socialist, liberal, Marxist; and even scientific. There are those who dismiss science as simply a socially constructed point of view; with history a similarly convenient set of myths to suit a particular purpose of the moment. Anything can mean anything; or, indeed, absolutely nothing at all. It has the potential for collective derangement and self-harm as many Brexiteers demonstrate.
Good South African examples can be drawn from attitudes to history. There is a belief that is trotted out at regular intervals, for example, that Albert Luthuli was killed by the apartheid state. There is not a jot of evidence of any sort – documentary, witness or circumstantial – to sustain this. If there were in such a high-profile case, it would surely have emerged by now fifty years on. The truth is that he was an old man in poor health knocked down by a train on a perilously narrow footbridge. There is no record that anyone involved behaved improperly or suspiciously in this accident. Nor did the apartheid state, yet to develop a policy of assassination, have any logical reason to eliminate Luthuli who had long been marginalised politically within the ANC by 1968. Yet this conspiracy theory persists and receives publicity that lends it an air of legitimacy. It is not the only example of make-believe history that populates our past and has a malign influence on the present.
There have been periods in world history when rationality and morality based on truth have been cast aside, submerged under mass emotion: Nazi Germany is the obvious example and the consequences of that remarkably short episode are well known – millions of people died in the most appalling of circumstances. Objective truth and the very idea of humanity were subordinated to supposed German science, philosophy and art. Morality was trampled by the ‘will of the people’, orchestrated by a crew of criminals, liars and propagandists.
In our era what the Rand Corporation has called a ‘firehose of falsehood’ from alt-Right sources is similarly revolutionary in intent, designed to undermine confidence and trust in national institutions and the rule of law; and poison the social and liberal democracy that underpins our freedom. These are the true ‘enemies of the people’ with their contempt for the truth and reason that Thomas Jefferson pointed out provide the foundation of just and stable societies. Today they are under severe threat in multiple insidious ways.
This article has drawn on Michiko Kakutani, The Death of Truth (London: Collins, 2018) to a significant extent.