Monthly Archives: January 2021

Trump’s Progeny: anti-Semites

No group drags hate around in its wake like the Jews and their burdensome anti-Semitism. Throughout history anti-Semitism has found its way into every stratum of society. From the rich theoretical and intellectual tradition of Marxist ideology, to the ignorant and hate filled skinheads who are the distorted prodigy of the Nazis, anti-Semitism rears its ugly head.

Voltaire, for example, is important to humanity as a foundational intellectual of the Enlightenment—the moment in history when science and reason were elevated above the irrational belief and traditionalism of religion and royalty. Individual freedom is the cornerstone of secular culture, and names such as Voltaire are now shorthand for rational and liberal thought.

But Voltaire was also a compulsive anti-Semite, using multiple texts to place Jews well outside the great civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome, and indeed beyond redemption. Voltaire pronounced concerning the Jews: “They are, all of them, born with raging fanaticism in their hearts, just as the Bretons and the Germans are born with blond hair.” In another essay, Voltaire concluded that the Jews deserve to be punished, for this is your destiny.”

Why is it that anti-Semitism can weave its way into the most elevated intellectual thought and then back again to rank hatred? Anti-Semitism pervades cultures at all levels: the Jews killed Christ, were responsible for the bubonic plague, used the blood of Christian children for their Passover ritual, and it goes on.

Interestingly, in the 1300s it was noted that the Jews were dying from the bubonic plague at a slower rate and blamed for causing the disease. The claim that all the Jews left the World Trade Center just before the planes hit the building seems to maintain a historical consistency that paints the Jews as blame full tricksters worthy of annihilation. If the Jews did die at a slower rate of bubonic plague it probably had more to do with the tradition of ritual handwashing before eating bread, bathing, or the Sabbath.

This long history of prejudice against the Jews was in full force on January 6th when a group of white supremacists stormed the capital building in a somewhat pathetic effort to take over the government.

Photos and video of the rioters show some with attire bearing the words “work brings freedom” – a translation of the Nazis’ infamous “arbeit macht frei” written above the entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau. One fellow was wearing a T-shirt that said “Camp Auschwitz”. On the back of the shirt it said “staff.” So this guy sees himself as overseeing the extermination of Jews at a concentration camp. And he takes pride in such identity.

The protesters, egged on by Trump, smashed windows and broke through police lines to take control of the seat of US government, as lawmakers met to confirm President-Elect Joe Biden’s election victory in a vote Trump said was rigged.

Surely a group of right-wing white supremacists who storm the capital building with violence in their hearts would not pass up an opportunity to express themselves.

Bari Weiss in her book How to Fight anti-Semitism takes comfort in one thing with respect to right wing anti-Semites, they don’t hide their face. Their goals are blunt and clear. That makes it easy to recognize anti-Semitism where it stands. Now we only have to do something about it.

 

 

Trump and Fake News

 

Mind you, I give Trump no credit for knowledgeable and skilled use of  social media. And even though I will examine his use of fake news this does not imply that Trump has conscious strategic understanding of what he is doing. This analysis concerns new media. The perpetrators of fake news or propaganda can easily find like-minded supporters who confirm each other’s perceptions and pre-existing prejudices. So fake news can become “reality” very quickly and easily. Trump benefited tremendously from this phenomenon. He would take the crowd size estimate at a political rally and deny it immediately claiming the crowd was bigger than the newspaper reported. They, according to Trump, reported lower numbers because they were prejudiced against him and not because it was an accurate calculation. Trump accused the media (e.g., the New York Times) of publishing fake news (crowds were smaller than they actually were)

Fake news is directly responsible for intervening in the civic sensibilities of the state. When Trump tweets that the news is fake, he is redirecting attention away from social goods such as public health, immigration policy, health insurance, or some other social value. This results in purposeful and systematic renegotiation of attention. Often, ignoring certain issues is just the policy position a political leader takes and this is exactly what the Trump administration did with respect to detention of immigrant children, government health insurance programs, Russian spying, and was even part of government’s approach to the Covid crisis.

 

Fake news causes information disorder. It contaminates the news streams. Figure 1 represents three types of information disorder discussed by Wardle (2020). Fake news can be simply misinformation where the information problems are unintentional and characterized by mistakes and inaccuracies that were hard to avoid. Or, it can be somewhat more extreme and be disinformation which is increasingly nefarious because it is fabricated deliberately. Disinformation causes

confusion and pollutes the social media with the intent of deliberately harming others. And the third is malinformation which is intentionally designed to cause harm such as deliberately revealing personal information. The key point here is that fake news, which influences the information environment in some way, is more complex and pernicious in the modern technological world. That some news is user-generated means that the collection and interpretation of such information is already predisposed toward certain presuppositions and power relations.

Fake news takes on a serious philosophical bent because it concerns the distinction between truth and post truth and the destabilization of objective facts. And fake news is particularly insidious with respect to open democratic societies. It has become increasingly important to all forms of social media that, as a whole, constitute the political talk of the culture. Fake news is similar to propaganda and propaganda is distorted political speech. Fake news is thus political speech and the quality of such political speech is dependent on the quality of a democracy.

Consequently, fake news is instrumental in determining who talks to whom and becomes a significant force in the determination of democracies and their trajectory.

Wardle, C. (2020). Journalism and the new information echo system: Responsibilities and challenges. In fake news (Ed.) Zimdars, M. & McLeod, K. (pp) 71-85. MIT press.

Fake News and The Semantics of Post Truth

This enigmatic term – “post truth” – has been around for some time now and it is confusing for most people. Since the Oxford English Dictionary concluded that the concept of post truth was significant enough that it was identified as word of the year in 2016, we are certainly justified in trying to make more sense of it. What does it mean and how did the concept of post truth get so central to the interpretation of some important ideas in contemporary culture? It is no accident that the concept of post truth exists at the same time as ideas such as fake news. What follows is an explanation of post truth and how it informs the notion of fake news.

Briefly, post truth is the idea that objective facts are not so important in shaping opinion as opposed to emotional appeal and personal beliefs. The “anti-maskers who refused to wear a mask or quarantine during the Covid crisis because they didn’t recognize the validity of the science behind immunology or network theory are one example of a group of people who represent a post truth mentality. Some theorists have argued that political policies are no longer developed on the basis of facts and the distinction between fake and real is unimportant. Consequently, democracies become emotional political processes.

If facts become unimportant or nonexistent then they become victims of a strong social construction; that is, it becomes possible to have everyday citizens be the determinants of what gets defined as a “fact.” There is something terribly paradoxical about this. Facts are supposed to be the sine qua non of stable truth. If anything should not be subject to the whims of human emotion and variability, it is facts. How can you argue that facts are pushed to the background and unimportant? Are not facts supposed to be stubborn and true? The answer, within the post truth theoretical tradition, is “no” facts are subject to the same social influences as any other construct and hold no privileged position in political discourse. Facts can be redefined, manipulated, and reinterpreted to mean anything and the key issue is how many converts can I create.

Trump set about the business of delegitimizing the press. Of course, the press is the one institution that holds Trump’s feet to the fire. The single institution that fact checks him, exposes his lies and manipulations, and records his indiscretions. So, it makes sense that he would go after the press and he did so by making the distinction between fake news and real news. Of course, real news was only stories supportive of Trump. Anything critical was labeled fake news.

Facts are under siege. They are becoming highly politicized where people express their own facts – what they believe to be facts or want to be facts – in order to turn the concept into a rhetorical weapon. The term fake news is a good example. It is appropriated by political actors in order to attack opponents. The concept of “fake” is no longer a measurable or precise definitional question but one of political authority because the issue is who gets to control the definition in order to use it for his or her own purposes and is therefore in a position to dismiss others.

Trump’s appropriation of the term fake news is so extreme as to be laughable. A skilled manipulator of meaning will exploit certain commonalities of meaning in order to lend them some credibility. Those who accuse liberals on the left as being socialist have been effective because certain concepts and ideas that emerge from the political position termed “liberalism” do in fact have at least some similarity to positions emerging from theories of socialism. That is why those who attack liberals by deploying the word socialist have been successful. They conflate the two terms (liberal and socialist) sufficiently such that the relationship between the two terms is plausible and the narrower more aggressive and distasteful ideas associated with “socialism” are more easily transferred to “liberalism.” But Trump declared even before the election that if he did not win the process was rigged. He baldly asserted the “fact” that there were election improprieties even though no charge was ever accepted and not a single claim supported.

It is clearly possible to cite more precise meaning and fact-based issues that distinguish liberalism from socialism, but this is not my concern at the moment. Because the role of communication is so central to democracies, these democracies are saturated with disagreement over what is “real” and what is “false.”

Part 2 of this essay will examine the nature of democracy and how one discourse follows another in terms of how much accepted disagreement it can tolerate. I will clarify how post truth rejects a rational political discourse that results in consensus; thus, post truth contends that maintaining a multitude of political voices, all contained in their subjective reality, is a more accurate reflection of the work of democracies and must grapple with the idea that logical and rational problem-solving is the definitive approach to managing differences, which is the goal of democratic processing.

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