A teachable moment on “fake news”

This new tell-all book about the Trump administration (excerpted in New York Magazine) is a teachable moment for “fake news.” The author, Michael Wolff, has a reputation for exaggeration and even falsification, including conversations that are recounted in such vivid detail that they basically have to be invented on some level. Some significant portion of this book is likely to be bullshit, and even just from reading it, I think any critical thinker is going to suspect that some of it is just too good to be true.

Nonetheless, people who hate Trump are passing around the juiciest stories already, and the full book is likely to be a goldmine for months to come. The reason is that they hate Trump, and these stories are satisfying because they present Trump in an extremely humiliating light. The implication is that they believe the stories are true, though if pressed they would probably say that they don’t care if the particular details are true because the overall message is. And that’s fine. I hate Trump, too. I read and found satisfaction in the excerpt. I might well pass along select tidbits in casual conversation.

I’m not here to judge anyone, just to suggest that the other side is reading their exaggerated “fake news” stories in much the same way. I’m sure we can all imagine our conservative uncle spouting some improbable story about Hillary, then backing down if pressed but nonetheless maintaining that the overall message that Hillary is corrupt or untrustworthy is true. They don’t care if it’s true — they just find the stories somehow enjoyable because they provide further fodder to hate people they already hate.

I’m something of a broken record on this topic. Why do I think it’s important? First, I think we need to realize that political antagonism takes this form more or less universally. You decide who your enemy is first, and then you seek narratives that help support that decision. Regarding your enemy as an honorable worthy opponent is the exception rather than the rule. Such declarations are likely to be tactical moves meant to convince rivals of one’s own reasonableness, as shown by the fact that the “reasonable Republicans,” for example, are either dead, out of power, or marginal within their party.

The phenomenon of demonization is much more serious on the right than the left, of course. The conspiracy theories about Hillary are much more unhinged than anything we see about Trump. But I keep wanting to point it out on the left because the liberal’s default view is that I have rationality and discernment, whereas the primitive other takes everything literally. It goes back to the faith vs. reason distinction — those who embrace faith commit themselves, in the liberal view, to slavishly obeying authority in a machine-like way. Hence they swallow whatever “fake news” Facebook feeds them, while we are able to maintain ironic distance. In reality, though, basically every educated person is capable of taking up ironic distance toward authoritative claims, and no one — no one! — follows any type of authority, even scriptural authority, in a mechanically literal way.

Am I advocating for some kind of sympathetic recognition that our enemies are human, too, sharing our own foibles, etc., etc.? Far from it: the fact that our enemies are human is what makes them enemies. What I’m interested in is winning, and we can never win if we have such an impoverished view of the people we are struggling against. The view that our enemies will just believe whatever is put in front of them, for instance, leads down blind alleys such as the attempt to restore “truth” to reporting — as though the media wasn’t always a site of political struggle. They are not slavish followers of authority, nor are we purely logical beings. We won’t win by convincing them that Hillary wasn’t really running a child molestation ring out of a pizza parlor.

In the short run, we will win by mobilizing the people on our side and demoralizing the people on their side. And what will convince people in the long run to switch sides is not reasoned arguments, but positive changes to their lives. Those of us who have switched from being conservative to liberal, for instance, didn’t likely do so because we read a pamphlet and decided abstractly that our beliefs were wrong. We changed our views because our lives changed, because the communities formed by conservatism were no longer working for us and more progressive settings were. That is the way it is and should be — no one should make a major change to their deep convictions because of a mere argument. So if we want to convince people, for example, that the government can provide certain important goods better than for-profit companies, we need to take power and make that the case, so that people can live out that fact and see for themselves.

And honestly, if a demonizing narrative about Trump helps drive the voter turnout needed to make that happen, I’m all for it. Let a thousand tell-all books bloom! We just need to be honest about the fact that we’re involved in a genuine political struggle, not a made-up conflict between reason and irrationality.

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