Monday, January 23, 2017

Not Just the Facts

Steven Bannon, Keeping it Fair and Balanced
By Finbarr Curtis

While Steven Bannon has problems with Muslims, he does seem to be cool with worshiping Satan, the Lord of Darkness. In an interview soon after the GOP's electoral triumph, Trump's chief strategist described his political worldview: 
"Darkness is good," says Bannon, who amid the suits surrounding him at Trump Tower, looks like a graduate student in his T-shirt, open button-down and tatty blue blazer — albeit a 62-year-old graduate student. "Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That's power. It only helps us when they" — I believe by "they" he means liberals and the media, already promoting calls for his ouster — "get it wrong. When they're blind to who we are and what we're doing."
While Satanists might take offense at their being lumped in with Trump supporters, Bannon's interest in power for its own sake and his willingness to toss aside concerns about good and evil might tell us something about his approach to publishing. His's penchant for fabricating news stories has made it one of the most visible examples of the internet medium in a era labeled "post-truth." From Bannon's perspective, his site provides a conservative alternative to liberal media. Rather than pretend to be nonpartisan, Bannon accepts that all news is biased and that the difference between his site and mainstream media like The New York Times or The Washington Post is that Breitbart happens to be conservative and the Times and Post happen to be liberal.

When Trump supporters decide that mainstream news organizations are full of liberal lies, they are capable of believing a lot of things. In response, websites like politifact evaluate whether various claims correspond to the real world, an exercise known as "fact checking."

I believe that fact checking is valuable, but I think that fact checkers are doing something different from what they think they are doing. For one thing, there are no bigger fans of facts than Trump supporters. This might sound like an odd claim after Kellyanne Conway's touting of "alternative facts." What I mean by saying that Trump supporters are fact obsessed is that they subscribe to a common sense literalist view of language that presumes that facts are self-evident certainties. One of the biggest contributors to the post-truth dispensation is not a devaluation of facts, but an all-too-fervent faith in facts understood as self-contained, self-evident pieces of information that exist outside of social contexts or human interpretations. This leads to the uncritical consumption of information as well as the refusal to do the work that goes into thinking and the dismissal of the perspectives of people who do such work. When I accept the reality of global warming or evolution, this is not because I am convinced by the facts. Rather, I trust the work that scientists do. I share their conviction that rigorous processes of verification and falsification are useful in evaluating knowledge about the world.

Some critics have noted a superficial similarity between post-truth and what academics sometimes call postmodernism. This reading holds that if facts are themselves forms of interpretation, then anything goes. In one recent essay:
Under the terms of this outlook, all claims on truth are relative to the particular person making them; there is no position outside our own particulars from which to establish universal truth. This was one of the key tenets of postmodernism, a concept which first caught on in the 1980s after publication of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report On Knowledge in 1979. In this respect, for as long as we have been postmodern, we have been setting the scene for a “post-truth” era.
These indictments of postmodernism often have a blame-the-messenger quality. They admit that French theorists like Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard were correct about how social discourse works in the mass mediated world in which we live. Because critics do not like what this means, however, they blame postmodernism and insist that we should produce alternative facts about a society in which rational actors make decisions based on factual evidence.

Laments about postmodernism are often accompanied by criticisms of theories that hold that knowledge is "socially constructed." The way this works is that unless you can assert that a fact like "Saturn is a planet" exists apart from interpretation, then everything is made up. While there is no doubt something in the sky that exists independently of human interpretation, what we know about it does not. Saturn did not name itself. Saturn is a Roman God. A planet is a form of classification invented by people to understand the universe. The statement "Saturn is a planet" is intelligible because it follows the conventions of English grammar. The production and communication of facts are dependent on a whole host of socially constructed ways of knowing things.

It is possible that what goes under the name of post-truth is a familiar feature of human history. Thomas J. Whitley noted that concerns about post-truth have a nostalgic tinge that presumes that we used to live in a world of stable truth claims. As he explains, this ignores the role that social power has always played in producing knowledge:
Fact checking can only be effective when the nature of facts are agreed upon. Too many, especially on the left, believe that they will eventually win the arguments they care about because the "facts" are on their side. No matter what we would like to believe, the struggles that matter, the struggles that have the power to destroy lives and bring down nations, have never hinged on how influential objective facts are. The fight for real power is over what gets to count as a fact in the first place. Truth only matters insofar as you have the power to determine what is truth.
People are persuaded by narratives through which they interpret information. The belief that facts tell their own story might be one reason why the efforts of earnest fact checkers at politifact do not persuade people convinced that all news is fake news. What we are seeing is not a crisis of facts, but a decline of institutional authority among media organizations. With the proliferation of information in the internet age, newspapers like the Times and the Post have lost some of the editorial power they used to wield to shape public discourse. Complaints about post-truth overlook this institutional reality in favor of the belief that the free flow of information will correct alternative facts.

I do think there are substantive differences between the information produced by the Times and the Post and that produced by Breitbart and Fox News, and that these differences are not simply reducible to liberal and conservative biases. But these differences have less to do with factual information than with editorial policies that value processes of verification and criticism. Fox does not just have a bias; it has nothing other than its bias. While commentators on Fox attack a lot of things, they rarely engage in the sustained criticism necessary to understand a social problem. Trump supporters do not lack access to facts; they lack the sense of proportion needed to evaluate information in relation to other information. 

The trouble with Bannon is not that he fails to be objective, but that he is not subjective enough in that he is unwilling to do the self-critical work required to be a thinking human subject. The work of civic education is not producing knowledge, but of developing habits of critical subjectivity necessary for evaluating diverse narratives in a complex world.

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