Liberal Laments: Truth or Troll?
As many of you now know, Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” as 2016’s word of the year. It’s an apt choice, as this year has proven the boundlessness of human credulity. Just this month, I found Marcosians peddling a variety of lies: from Apo was rich because he inherited Yamashita’s treasure; Imee Marcos was young and innocent during the Martial Law years; to the best revisionist claim yet: Sandro Marcos is smart.
A world without truth is a scary place—one where hucksters, self-promoters, and trolls compete with the aplomb of trained reporters. (Please screen-cap for me posts that call Mocha Uson “neutral.”) Where facts fade, fascists rise, as leaders like Digong trust the white heat of emotion over the coldness of facts: kiss the flag, proclaim your burning desire to save the republic, but exaggerate the number of drug users.
To the boring liberal, all this is worrisome. Yet there is some comfort to be found in history. The rise of new communication media enable new political possibilities, negative and positive, enabling and disabling. In the 1920s and '30s, the world was inundated with lies spread by mass media and new propaganda techniques. People believed all sorts of crap because of what they heard on the radio or what was fed to them through new reels.
Today, a new communication form, social media, is doing to societies what print and broadcast media did decades before. And the only thing we can say with certainty is that, if a prior era of post-truth passed, this period too shall pass, taking with it celebrities of selectivity like Mocha and her Trumpista counterpart, Ann Coulter. We just don’t know when.
A world without truth is a scary place—one where hucksters, self-promoters, and trolls compete with the aplomb of trained reporters.
The propaganda of the past was only slightly more nuts than the Marcos-Yamashita theory. From the 1930s until the late 1950s, citizens of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries believed in the “science” of biologist Trofim Lysenko. Beyond rejecting Darwinism in favor of “natural cooperation,” Lysenko and his followers claimed to be able to convert rye into wheat, and wheat into barely. Such biological techniques, they preached, would save Communist countries from famine.
Interestingly, Lysenko thought that his critics were “fly lovers and people haters,” who merely wanted to weaken the Soviet economy. They were, in other words, trying to destabilize his country.
The other paranoid authoritarian power, Nazi Germany, was equally deceitful. The Nazis actively promoted a fabricated text called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which purportedly described an attempt at Jewish world domination. Though it was probably written decades earlier, it gained new currency as it affirmed Hitler’s view that world history would unfold in a violent confrontation of races. This bit of post-truth would be mainstreamed not just by Goebbels, but by German school teachers who taught the text in class. As we know now, post truths about Jews justified horrendous acts, from scattered pogroms to the holocaust.
Both figures of authority and ordinary people believed in Lysekoism and the Protocols, and many defended their beliefs violently. Belief can be a scary thing. And that is why concentration camps and gulags were composed of unbelievers.
Today, however, even the most strident Stalinist—and this includes cadres of our own Communist Party—would stare blankly at you if you told them about Lysenko. And even the Trumpist alt right would think twice before touching the Protocols. That era post-truth passed. It took a world war, a cold war, millions of imprisonments and deaths—but the post-truth passed.
Today, we do not know how much longer critics will be harassed online, how exponentially Mocha’s followers will grow, how many more drug deaths will be brushed off, and how significantly the history of martial law will be rewritten. A wise human rights advocate (Chito Gascon) once told me he thinks things will eventually get better, but not before they get worse.
At one point, however, the truth will surface. And when that happens, this trolling of liberal democracy will abate. But since we don’t know when this will happen, what do we do in the meantime?
I think, it is time to rally towards our institutions of truth-telling. Personally, I have stopped caring whether or not I get called elitist for looking up to journalists from an institution like Rappler.com. There is much to admire about the work of people like Glenda Gloria and Marites Vitug, and I will continue thanking these folks for providing with the news. These journalists have been to conflict areas and crime scenes; they have put in hours conducting interviews and digging through various archives. I am grateful for them, because the information they provide—warts, slants, and all—comes from their own research and not some handler in an online propaganda machine.
And as self-serving as this sounds, another institution of truth telling is the academe. Dear reader, please lend us a hand as we fight an uphill battle against post-truth.
As we combat post-truth, our main enemy and foe will be belief. From the belief in a strong leader, other beliefs easily take root: all-out drug wars work, there is a yellow conspiracy to destroy our reforms, Marcos is a hero. Tatay Digong said so.
As we combat post-truth, our main enemy and foe will be belief. Post-truth emerges because it is easy to drink the Kool-Aid. A “Tatay Digong” who knows best and deserves our full support is cognitively simpler and more emotionally reassuring than a president of a democratic republic who needs to be debated and engaged. From the belief in a strong leader, other beliefs easily take root: all-out drug wars work (you just have to kill them all), there is a yellow conspiracy to destroy our reforms, Marcos is a hero. Because Tatay Digong said so.
Amid this, it is the role of truth-tellers to promote doubt, for doubt is the start of critical thinking. But pure doubt is emotionally barren and uninspiring. One the other hand, pure belief is the road to authoritarianism. Before the haze of post-truth fades, liberals must therefore look for a belief that leaves room for doubt.