People these days increasingly say we’re entering a “post-truth era.”
That’s nonsense. Objective truth, like reality, exists whether we accept it or like it or not.
The concept of “post-truth” today does not refer to the absence of truth but rather to the fact that more and more people in the society are becoming immune to it, so to speak, as they increasingly choose to accept as gospel truth whatever even demonstrable lies their religious and political leaders, who are hip-joined, spew forth.
This has the dangerous effect of removing actual truth from people’s consideration and, thus, from the decisions they make for themselves, their loved ones and anyone who may be afflicted when those decisions are ill-considered and unwise.
The disastrous after-effects of one such wayward subjective decision — the ill-advised election of Donald Trump as U.S. president — is becoming increasingly evident as the nation finds itself woefully unprepared and thus ill-equipped to deal with a coronavirus epidemic that has already slain about 5,000 Americans.
We are in this awful situation because just enough Americans in precisely the right locations voted to elect a man who, throughout his election campaign — indeed, throughout is personal and business life — had amply demonstrated a disturbing absence of moral and ethical guardrails. His two most evident traits are narcissism and an apparently pathological tendency to gratuitously lie, even when it’s unnecessary.
So, in January, as China’s battle with the virus began and its potential for pandemic chaos presented, Trump fiddled while America was infected. It was no big deal, he said. It will be over shortly. Don’t worry. This was compounded by the fact that he had previously dismantled the White House office that monitored such potential epidemics or epidemics and would have prepared the nation to effectively respond should one arrive on our shores.
But no. Now we have vastly too few testing kits to assess the true extent of U.S. infection to plan a coordinated response, to few regular and intensive-care hospital beds, personal protective equipment (PPEs) for medical staff treating infected patients (and the uninfected), and masks to protect the healthy from the infected and to keep already-infected patients from infecting others.
In other words, because of a cavalier government attitude starting at the top in the early days of the U.S. epidemic — based on faulty intuition, not facts — we now have too little of everything too late.
A responsible commander-in-chief would have given this grave health menace top priority from the get-go, as public health and medical science experts have been demanding for months, globally.
But they dithered.
In the meantime, intellectuals quibble about what “post-truth” means.
Harvard cognitive psychologist and eminent public intellectual Steven Pinker unhelpfully likes to play linguistic games with these things.
“Consider the statement “We are living in a post-truth era,” Pinker once wrote. “Is it true? If so, it cannot be true.”
The idea is that, after a so-called “post-truth” era begins, any truthful statement we make would then necessarily be false. Otherwise, we would be saying something true when no truth exists, which is, of course, an untenable paradox. Or something like that.
Such naval-gazing pointlessly complicates what is actually a very objectively clear situation.
Meanwhile, Rome burns, figuratively. In truth, Americans die.
What “post-truth” effectively means is that too few people are able to identify truth over bias at a time when the truth is blindingly obvious and its destructive effects are in dire need of historically bold intervention. You snooze, you lose. Or, in this case, you may perish.
I mean, just last week, the president was officially reassuring the American people — at the same time public health experts verily shouted warnings against it — that the country would be “back to work” by Easter Sunday. “Wouldn’t that be nice,” he said.
We’re now playing catch-up with a virulent pestilence that is mowing down our fellow countrymen by the bushel. The reason is not “post-truth” but a post-lie failure.
The problem can be expressed in three words: lack of accountability.
In the latest edition of Skeptic magazine, philosopher Lee McIntyre, the author of Post-Truth, laments:
“We live in a time when far too many people — especially those in positions of power — lie about or ignore reality, and seem to pay no political price for it.”
His understanding of the current culture of multiplicity is more practical than Pinker’s.
“I define ‘post-truth’ as the ‘political subornation of reality,’” McIntyre asserts. “It is a tactic in the authoritarian toolbox, whereby disinformation is used not simply to convince someone that a falsehood is true, but to so overwhelm the information stream with fakery that it can cause the citizenry to give up on the idea of facts and truth altogether.”
The goal, he says, is “to show you who’s boss,” to demonstrate such dominance over people’s reality that they feel helpless to resist.
McIntyre recounts that after the anti-Semite massacre at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last year the president justified holding a political rally that same night because the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) was open the day after 9/11.
The truth is that the NYSE closed for six days immediately after 9/11, but the president, as is his wont, doesn’t care about truth when it conflicts with his plans or assumptions.
“Trump went on to hold the rally not because his lie had convinced anyone,” McIntyre wrote, “but because there was no political price for it.”
We let liars be liars at our peril. Even if they don’t pay the price for their deceits, we inevitably will.
Sometimes public lying is like yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. There oughta be a law, right? Used to be people were held accountable for their public deceits. But, no more, apparently.