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Post-Truth American Fictions

In America (1988), Jean Baudrillard writes of the United States and hyperreal temporality through largely analysing the metaphor of the automobile:  “Driving is a spectacular form of amnesia. Everything is to be discovered, everything to be obliterated.”  This description of driving in the US is also easily applicable to how Americans experience their own history and contemporaneity.  Our political present is ostensibly constructed from something we have already driven by, but we have displaced this past with the thrill of the present, wind in our hair, the striking landscape enrapturing our gaze.  It is as if all the present came from nowhere, mysteriously popping into our rearview mirror as an experience we have already lost from memory.

Conversely, there are those who would argue that America’s proclivity to distancing themselves from their own history (and active participation in their own terrorism),  is inextricably intertwined to living a society with “contradictory ideals of freedom, equality and prosperity.” And even other theories which maintain that Americans are addicted to “divisive politics.”  Certainly, of all the possible addictions current in the 21st century, I would argue that Americans are in a constant struggle to understand their amnesiac engagement with the media and their own history.  I remember how so many—close friends even—in the advent of 9/11, embraced the media’s and the government’s narrative which argued for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Even media lackeys such as Judith Miller, who actively participated in the construction of the WMD myth and who still maintains her innocence despite evidence to the contrary, continue to chime in on this circus of post-truth history.  The reality is that post-truth is just another name for propaganda, lies, and tabulations that to this day, sadly, many Americans still believe despite evidence to the contrary.   While we can calculate if Americans are suffering from amnesia or addictions of any sort, the real question is if this state of post-truth is not a symptom of a cultural madness where reality is so easily divorced from the preferred fictions we embrace, despite evidence to the contrary.

The problem with couching the current problem as “post-truth” presupposes that there was any embrace of pre-truth, or even truth-truth for that matter.  Or, absurdly, that the media-source delivering the news of post-truth is also a fountain of media fictions.  Given that sources like BuzzFeed, a major source of post-truth media creation breaks the story of “fake news” demonstrates how merely having an Internet connection, hosting service, and corporate sponsorship ties can leave a publication indebted to its sponsors and prone to mislead its readers. One must also wonder to what degree, given the current state of what Stephen F. Cohen calls “Cold War hysteria,” people demand fictions over truths.

So I must wonder to what degree are Americans the epitome of the duped lover who sees all the evidence of deception before them, but who adamantly refuses to accept deceit as the reason for the lover’s late-night absences, the smell of someone else’s cologne, and the unexplained charges to hotel rooms. Are Americans the political allegory of the cuckolded lover, desperate to stay in a relationship with a lie because the only other option—the actual truth—is far more uncomfortable?

I recently read a piece by a Guardian writer who describes her year of “no spending” wherein the “basics” consisted of “mortgages, utilities, broadband, phone bill, charity donations, life insurances, money to help my family and basic groceries.”  I could not help bursting out laughing while reading this piece as what this person considers “basics,” for the rest of us on planet earth, the bare basics generally consist only of the last item—food.  Most people struggling to get by do not have the good fortune of owning a home, the money to pay life insurance, or even the time much less the funds to consider charity donations (since they are number one charity donation of the moment).  This piece called to mind the incredible disconnect that is current today, and not just among Guardian readers:  there is a will to believe in pretty much any narrative that is spun, even by “down and out” writers whose ill-fortune most of us would kill for.  And it is precisely this sort of detachment from reality that fuels many other false beliefs ranging from the everyday to the political.  And it encompasses not only the writers of such pieces, but also the  readers who position themselves to feel in sympathy with poverty, simply by virtue of reading the sentimentalisation of “poverty.”  Today the neoliberal bourgeois writer faking poverty has entered into an unspoken social contract with her readership who staunchly defend her social experiments in much the same way that university freshman once upon a time used to feign empathy by putting blindfolds on themselves and running around campus with the full knowledge of what it means to be blind.

In the weeks following the US election, the liberal media has evidenced itself in crisis as it comes up with one plot after another to link the US election to Russian hackers, even as a Russian-orchestrated coup, something for which Cold War enthusiasts can muster a bit of excitement.  Lesson for 2016: the Cold War was not the model to overcome—it was the model to emulate.

Replace Judith Miller with The Washington Post writing team of Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller, and here we have the new spin machine with Joseph McCarthy’s ghost fully enjoying his handiwork.  And hey, what a great distraction from what is going on in real-life politics as a bill proposing to raise the retirement age to 69, “The Social Security Reform Act of 2016” (H.R. 6489), has been snuck in with barely a peep form the Russia-obsessed media.  After all what could be more trustworthy than anonymous leaks over evidence.  Who needs evidence when gut feelings are all that matter in today’s fiction-loving era in search of a new Russian plot or when bills which actually set out to destroy Social Security are actually labelled as “reforming” it.

While a part of me thinks that anyone who engages in historical amnesia deserves every bit of the President Elect Trump they never voted for, another part of me wishes that the left might seize this political shift as an opportunity for reflection from within.  The left needs to do some serious examination of its attachment to identity politics and the marginalisation of historical materialist readings of the political spectrum for starters. And having actual facts, rather than feelings, about the alleged Russian government hacking of the US election is one place to consider embracing this sort of material reality.

Moreover, the left desperately needs to move away from bipartisan politics whereby whatever an establishment liberal says or does is always right and the other side’s words and actions necessarily wrong.  To objectively and fearlessly critique both sides of the aisle and to examine our political words and deeds is imperative in this age of truthiness, gut-feeling politics.  We must question our own “party line” and even step outside of the party-thought. For although I certainly did not vote for Donald Trump, I am horrified to see what seems to be a seamless construction of fabricated narratives that are setting him up to be implicated as somehow “falsely elected.”  And this is a narrative being spun by liberals who refuse to examine the larger implications of throwing their support behind a candidate who, for lack of a better word, was simply was dreadful on many levels.  Or say even if you think Clinton was an excellent candidate, that that camp might finally accept that she simply did not win the election.   Around this particular subject, there are moments when I feel like we are back to debating if Elvis lives or not.

All this, however, could be yet another media circus,  and that there is no real move to depose Trump whatsoever.  If so, this media frenzy which has since early November warned us about impending fascism, tyranny, the end of days, and so forth, underscores the immense power structures behind the scenes that a Trump presidency would threaten.  From his views on international politics to those on trade and trading partners, we must begin to wonder if the state apparatus is pre-empting the limits that it foresees as necessary for Trump to respect while liberal media contemplates how Russia put Trump in power. Well, at least according to the bizarre tweets of Eric Garland.  After all if Mother Jones Editor in Chief, Clara Jeffery, can frame Garland’s conspiracy theories as the “single greatest thread I have ever read on Twitter. And in its way a Federalist Paper for 2016,” then hell yeah, let’s just ride that McCarthyist rocket all the way.  The problem with all the accolades directed at Garland, to include Vox’s Sean Illing labeling this theory as “bullshit-free,” is that, as it turns out, Garland’s idle musings were uniquely constructed of bullshit.

But I digress here. For in a world where facts are meaningless and feelings supersede all, we must be prepared to get out our safety pins and hefty supplies of pacifiers.

What is certain is that until the left can understand and accept why Hillary Clinton lost this election, they will only merit a President Trump whose caustic tweets and allusions to game changing politics are simply the flip side of the left’s wilful unreason.

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Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com

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