Today's Editorial

21 February 2017

Post-Truth Europe ~ I



Source: By Arunabha Bagchi: The Statesman



The Oxford dictionary has decided to anoint “post-truth” as the word of the year 2016. The dictionary defines this as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion or popular beliefs.” The usage of the word increased dramatically after the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee in the US presidential election in the summer of last year. Two canonical examples cited by the liberals as “post-truth” are the claim of the Brexiteers that 350 million pounds that the UK contributes to the EU budget every day would be used to improve the National Health Service if the UK withdrew from the EU, and the other was the deliberate silence of Donald Trump when asked about the innuendo that Barack Obama was actually born outside the US, and therefore became the US President illegally.


These were just two of a series of statements by politicians to circumscribe obvious facts by appealing to prejudices of the electorate to achieve their goals and the “post-truth” world became a full-fledged reality in the West. Since India lies beyond the radar of the western intellectuals and analysts, they failed to realize that the “post-truth” world was actually born two years earlier in India with the campaign of the BJP during the parliamentary election of 2014.


After Oxford dictionary’s decision to term “post-truth” as the word for 2016, numerous articles appeared in major international media around the turn of the calendar year on this topic. Cheap philosophical discussions ensued, with Plato and Nietzsche taking the centre stage. Plato’s theory of forms was portrayed as conceptualizing “the truth”, the first attempt towards a theory of knowledge.


Eminent philosophers since then developed their own versions of the theory of knowledge, which finally led to Immanuel Kant’s revolutionary idea that we never could know “things-in-themselves”, but only reflected through causality, possibility, and necessity etc that he called categories. The Plato-Kant paradigm was to know the truth as an eternal and unchangeable concept. This illylic idea was shattered by Frederische Nietzsche when he argued that truth was a function of power ~ the power to dominate the thinking of others.


Coupling truth with power changed the western philosophy forever. The key concept was “contingency”, and Nietzsche argued that “truth was relative to the perspective of the truth-seeker.” This meant, in essence, that there were many “truths”, and the concept of “one truth” was a fiction. The fractured truth put the idea of God on a shaky foundation and morality lost its moorings in the West. This actually excited Nietzsche, as he thought that this would work against the herd mentality of people and they would have to “create” their own morality.


Nietzsche dominated western philosophy, both from the right and from the left, throughout the last century. Then towards the turn of the century the American philosopher Richard Rorty developed a theory of an ideal society where multiple truths were the norm. The key is intellectual humility and the need of conversation to reach a consensus. He argued that the political and intellectual elite are still trapped in the Enlightenment mindset and think that “we can discover the truth, provided we use our reason the right way.


Whoever does not manage to get at the truth simply hasn’t been using their God-given intellect the right way and therefore needs to be enlightened.” Rorty predicted catastrophic consequence of this attitude in the post-Enlightenment world of Nietzsche. He argued in Achieving Our Country that ordinary people not sharing the “truth” of the political and intellectual elite would elect a “strongman” and “all the political correctness the academic left had been trying to build for decades would come flooding back as discrimination, stronger and ruder than ever.”


It took only eighteen years for his prophecy to become reality with the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States. In fact, it was already realized two years earlier with the overwhelming victory of Narendra Modi in India. The fragmentation of truth was atomized with the advent of social media like Facebook and Twitter and the “post-truth” world became the reality in India, even before it took decisive hold in the West during the unstoppable election campaign of Donald Trump.


Now “post-truth” is threatening Europe as three major national elections are coming up there within the next eight months. Let us start with the election in the Netherlands, a small but significant country situated between Germany and the United Kingdom. The Dutch have a liberal tradition going back for centuries and they were a founding member of the European Union. In a way, they are the bridge between the Continental Europe and the Anglo-Saxon world. They had traditionally three major parties, the center-right Liberal Partythe centrist Christian Democrats and the center-left Labor Party. A decade ago the exterme right of the Liberal Party split under the leadership of Geert Wilders with the same isolationist and rabid anti-Muslim message as that of Donald Trump long before he came to the political scene.


The Netherlands has parliamentary democracy and proportional representation. Coalition is a must to form a government there. As per convention, the Queen asks the party with the largest percentage of votes to start the coalition deliberation. With the Christian Democrats and Labor Party steadily losing their support, despite veering to the right, the PVV party of Geert Wilders has now become the largest party in the Netherlands in all opinion polls. At first it was considered the voice of protest in between two elections. The belief was that at the polling booth the level headed Dutch would still refrain from voting for PVV.

This time it is different. With Brexit and victory of Donald Trump, Wilder’s support has solidified and there is real panic among the traditional political parties. There are behind the scene campaigns for supporters of all center/center-left parties, including the Greens, to vote for the Liberal Party just to thwart Wilders from getting the highest perccentage of votes. The whole of Europe is watching.