A program of the Center for Inquiry
Thanks to the presidency of Donald J. Trump, the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate news organizations has been obliterated. Trump has launched an all-out attack on the mainstream media as purveyors of lies and fake news. In the absence of the distinction between truth and lies, how can citizens make intelligent choices when selecting their leaders? There is much fear and trepidation in the United States over this epistemological crisis. Suddenly the free media, which has defined American democracy, lies in tatters. Americans find themselves living in a post-truth world that threatens their democracy and way of life.
In my view, all the lamentation over the loss of truth in the American media is a sign of puerility. What has happened to the American media is a blessing in disguise. Throughout history, Americans have enjoyed unparalleled freedom of thought and speech—enshrined in their Constitution. Unfortunately, freedom of thought and speech does not guarantee immunity from deception and propaganda. Nor is a free media immune from groupthink.
There are two different ways of looking at freedom of thought and speech. One is bright and sunny and has its source in John Stuart Mill. The other is dark and sinister and has its source in Plato. Americans have, for the most part, been living in the cheery world of liberal ideology. Like Mill, they believe that free discussion allows the truth to emerge, and that truth is always good for society. Unfortunately, this sunny view is naive; it leads Americans to believe that they are among the fortunate few who can bask in the bright light of Truth.
In contrast, Plato realized that there is no guarantee that intellectual freedom will allow the truth to triumph. On the contrary, in a free contest of ideas, the most seductive, vociferous, cunning, crafty, and clever ideas are the ones bound to succeed. Like so many philosophers, Plato thought that he knew what was good for humanity. He was in possession of the Truth. If the latter is to triumph, it must be imposed. Because people are too ignorant and depraved to choose the truth of their own accord, they must be deceived. Accordingly, Plato became the philosopher of “artful lies.”
Americans believe that they are on the sunny side in the freedom of speech debate. In truth, when it comes to their foreign policy, Americans fall back on artful lies. Like Plato, they believe they know what is good for humanity. They have no qualms about using lies to influence the elections of other countries. When the lies are not artful enough and the wrong results are achieved, then the democratically elected leaders are removed by the Central Intelligence Agency. In 1953, the democratically elected secular president of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddeq, was replaced. In 1973, the democratically elected Salvador Allende of Chile was removed. Americans have interfered in Russian elections since the fall of the Soviet Union. Unhappily, interference yields unanticipated results—such as the grim mullahs who rule Iran and the corrupt oligarchy over which Vladimir Putin presides. Nevertheless, the United States continues to be a champion of Plato’s artful lies.
However, with the ascendancy of the neoconservatives during the presidency of George W. Bush, the artful lies were no longer reserved for foreign consumption. They became a staple of domestic politics. The result was two disastrous and unnecessary wars—in Afghanistan and Iraq—wars that have undermined America’s stature in the world, ballooned the national debt, and brought the United States to the brink of economic collapse. Far from questioning these wars, the media cheered them on.
In spite of these fiascos, Americans cling to their liberal stupor—namely, that a free media ensures the triumph of truth. In reality, America’s mainstream media is rife with feel-good propaganda. It never fails to remind Americans that they live in the greatest nation on the planet, the most powerful nation on Earth—a nation with a world-historical mission. That mission is to spread freedom and democracy throughout the world and destroy the enemies of freedom in every corner of the globe. The free media has been complicit in the propagation of the national mythology. It has contributed to the crowds chanting “USA! USA!” It has failed to inject a note of realism into the national conversation.
Americans and their leaders are horrified at the post-truth world in which they have been plunged. They blame Russia for loss of confidence in American democracy. They blame Russia for destroying the world of truth, which has made American democracy a beacon for the world. They are determined to punish Russia, so that no one will ever dare to interfere with an American election again. Accordingly, former President Barack Obama expelled Russian diplomats from the United States. Even worse, congressional leaders suspect the collusion of President Trump with the Russian foe and are determined to investigate.
In my view, the effort to punish Russia for ruining the pure and uncontaminated American electoral system is just so much hypocrisy. The United States spies on everyone—friendly as well as unfriendly governments. It behooves the leaders to keep quiet and not make fools of themselves wasting money and time on endless investigations. Instead, they should put their energy into figuring out how not to get hacked.
It is time for the media to rise to the occasion. Its first task is not to be distracted by fact-checking the plethora of lies and falsehoods dished out by the new administration. This may be a deliberate policy to distract the media from what the administration is doing. Second, the media must embrace the title of “liberal media” and take its job seriously as defender of the rights and freedoms of Americans—not corporations. Third, the media must resolve to be fair to Trump and his supporters by taking them seriously. This means questioning the bipartisan consensus on Russia as the evil empire. It means considering the negative effects of globalization on ordinary citizens. It means taking seriously discussion of immigration, multiculturalism, and political correctness. It means not dismissing conservatives as homophobic, racist, and sexist.
In short, the media should affirm the post-truth world as an antidote to the childishness of the feel-good propaganda in which they have basked for so long. They should delight in the doubt, multiplicity, and radical critique of the most sacred cows that the post-truth world invites.
Shadia B. Drury is professor emerita at the University of Regina in Canada. Her books include Terror and Civilization (2004), Aquinas and Modernity (2008), and The Bleak Implications of Socratic Religion (forthcoming, 2017).