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Monday, December 5, 2016

Reality, truth, & facts, versus the Republican will to power

by John MacBeath Watkins

Some on the right seem to regard reality as a mere inconvenience. Recently, Trump supporter and CNN commentator Scottie Nell Hughes went so far as to assert that "There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts."

It would be interesting to know when there ceased to be facts. Was it during George W. Bush's first term, when an administration official (almost certainly Karl Rove) claimed that "we create or own reality?" Certainly Republicans had a history long before that of acting as if facts were irrelevant. They've continued to assert that lowering taxes increases tax revenue long after that was shown to be untrue.

Now, there is a philosophical position that "truth" is impossible. In The Will To Power, Friedrich Nietzsche asserted as much:
Against [empiricism], which halts at [observable] phenomena—‘There are only facts’—I would say, no, facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations. We cannot establish any fact ‘in itself’: perhaps it is folly to want to do such a thing. 
‘Everything is subjective [for example, a figment of your reasoning mind],’ you say; but even this is interpretation. The ‘subject’ is not something given, it is something added and invented … [Is] it necessary to posit an interpreter behind the interpretation? … 
In so far as the word ‘knowledge’ has any meaning, the world is … interpretable, otherwise it has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings—‘Perspectivism’. 
It is our needs that interpret the world; our drives … Every drive is a kind of list to rule; each one has its perspective that it would like to compel all the other drives to accept as a norm.
Nor is this rather malleable notion of the truth new to the right. As I've noted before, German fascism did not consider even science to be capable of objective truth:
Each nation had a science natural to them, they maintained, and any science that claimed to be universal was "Jewish" and false. The "science" of racial hygiene was far more acceptable.
I believe the source of the error here is a failure to understand the relationship between reality, facts, and truth.

Truth is a species of belief. It is a word we use to describe that which we believe without question. Reality is what is there whether we believe it or not. As I write this, it is winter, and the thermometer in the room I currently occupy reads 63 degrees Fahrenheit. That is a simple, observable fact. I know that the thermometer in question is not the most precise, but I can report what it says without fear that my interpretation has contaminated the reading, and I can be certain that it accords to a reasonable degree with reality.

Now, lest you think I've taken the statement from Hughes out of context, or that I'm being pedantic about "facts," here is her statement in context. As a call-in guest on the Diane Rheme show, she was asked what she thought about some fact-checking that showed much of what Donald Trump tweets is lies.
“On one hand, I hear half the media saying that these are lies. But on the other half, there are many people that go ‘No it’s true,’" Hughes said. "And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people who say ‘facts are facts,’— they’re not really facts." 
“Everybody has a way—It’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts,” she added.
I think here we see the basic problem between those of us in what Rove termed the "reality-based community" and those in the conservative bubble. We think there are facts -- observable, objective representations of reality -- while Hughes and her ilk think there is only opinion.

Given the definition of "truth" I've given above, it should be clear that I think it is possible for people to maintain that something is "true" -- that they believe it without question -- while not being in accord with the facts -- objective representations of reality. Hughes seems to mean that if people claiming a thing is true actually believe that, and are not lying, that's as good as having a belief that aligns with observable reality.

Those of us in the reality-based community tend to think people saying this are in effect claiming their ignorance is as good as actual knowledge. In fact, they think their ignorance is better if it wins.

That is a very Nietzschean notion of truth (well, rather cruder than Nietzsche.) Donald Trump himself, asked if his dishonest and heated rhetoric during the campaign had gone to far, replied in this same mode:
"No. I won," he said.
This is perhaps the clearest statement yet of how conservatives have come to regard claims made in the political sphere. In Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, Irving Kristol wrote of supply-side economics,  "I was not certain of its economic merits but quickly saw its political possibilities."

The political possibilities involved being able to lower taxes on the rich while claiming they were neither cutting programs for those less fortunate nor exploding the deficit. The fact that supply-side economics never worked was a feature, not a bug. It allowed conservatives to argue that the deficit they had created was too large, and we needed to cut programs like Social Security.

Neoconservatives have long believed themselves a sort of intellectual vanguard, who have no merely the option, but the obligation, to mislead people in order to lead them.

Paul Krugman is fond of saying that "reality has a well-known liberal bias." But why is that? Perhaps it's because conservatives and liberals have a very different relationship with reality and truth.

Conservatives are all about conserving traditional values, beliefs, and power structures. Their truth is already established, through long-standing tradition. Liberals are trying to discover the world and human nature, and discover the best way for people to interact with the world. Liberalism is a child of the Enlightenment, conservatism has been with us as long as culture has.

We see this in their relationship with the press, as well. Starting with Nixon, the conservative take on the press has been that the important thing is, are they with us or against us? Prior to the advent of Fox News, when reality conflicted with traditional values, beliefs, and power structures, the press would present facts, which might establish that the truth was not what we had believed before. This is very annoying to people who know the truth without reference to the facts.

This became particularly noisome from the conservative point of view when they were reporting on the civil rights movement or the Vietnam War. Fox News found an opportunity here, providing "news" that did not conflict with traditional values, beliefs, and power structures; if the facts were a problem, they ignored them or changed them.

When Donald Trump claimed he would "Make America Great Again," he was not talking about greatness in the sense of some objectively quantifiable fact. He was promising to restore -- wait for that phrase again -- traditional values, beliefs, and power structures.

No, he can't bring back the jobs lost in the West Virginia coal mines, and perhaps the West Virginians who voted for him don't really expect him to. In fact, they may not expect him to change objective facts in their lives at all. What he represents to them is the will to power for the formation of a different kind of truth, about traditional sex roles, about the power structure that existed in that lost world of the 1950s.

As L.P. Hartley wrote, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." The world has changed too much for us to return to a time when being white and male and willing to work made the world your oyster, or any other mollusk you chose. It's no accident that the 2016 election took place against the backdrop of a controversy over transgender bathroom use and white backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement. Nor is it an accident that the champion of tradition did badly among the young.

Those who can adjust to reality are doing so. For the rest, truth is known from tradition, and reality is an inconvenience.

(I should note that in my opinion, Nietzsche would not have approved of Donald Trump. He was opposed to tribalism and nationalism, and wanted to see a unified Europe, whereas Trump is very much about tribalism.. And Trump does not resemble the ubermensch so much as the last man, who is decadent and resentful, fearful of progress, comfort-loving and backward-looking. In Thus Spake Zarathustra, the titular character, finding people reject his teaching on the ubermensch, gives them an example of someone so disgusting he assumes they will be repelled by him, der letzte Mensch, or last man. Instead, they embrace him. That makes me think of how the pundits thought Trump was too disgusting to be elected, and were dismayed when he was. But in truth, Trump does not fit the image of either ubermensch or letzte mensch very well.)

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