Britain’s decisive vote to leave the European Union and the election, 20 weeks later, of Donald Trump have sent horrified elites to seek solace in fake news and stolen elections to attempt to explain away these twin popular revolts. At a public lecture in London on Brexit shortly before the presidential election, Princeton professor Harold James seized on a comment that Brexit was the outcome of post-truth politics. “Absolutely right,” Professor James responded. “I completely agree with every word.” It was the world of Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin, Professor James averred, one described by Peter Pomerantsev in Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia – which was, in the words of one reviewer, “a beautifully written depiction of a fevered, frenzied society, of a city glittering at the edge of darkness.” The history professor was equating the anti-establishment Brexit insurgency with Putin and the state-controlled Russian media.
A rare Brexit-supporting professor was sharing the platform. “I completely disagree,” declared Robert Tombs, a Cambridge historian and the author of The English and Their History. “We’ve never lived in an age of truth.” The two centuries after the invention of the printing press more or less saw the collapse of European civilization. “I just don’t know when there was a time when the people were told the truth by politicians and the press.”
What is new – and troubling – is the use of “fake news” to justify censorship and its use as a tool of social control. After Donald Trump’s election, liberals such as Tom Friedman hailed Germany’s Angela Merkel as the West’s true leader for upholding Western values. Her open-door immigration policy, which helped her garner Time magazine’s 2015 Person of the Year honor, is sometimes explained as reflecting her experience of living under Communism. “In East Germany, we always ran into boundaries before we were able to discover our own personal boundaries,” Time reported.
Sounds nice, but was that fake news? Merkel’s family was one of the few that had moved from West to East Germany. They had the privileges that came from being favored by the Party – two cars, access to stores selling Western goods, travel to the West. “They were élite,” Merkel’s Russian teacher said in a 2014 profile by George Packer in The New Yorker. A former East German colleague described her role as secretary for Agitation and Propaganda of the state youth organization, Freie Deutsche Jugend, at East Berlin’s Academy of Sciences. “With Agitation and Propaganda, you’re responsible for brainwashing in the sense of Marxism,” according to former German transport minister Günther Krause, who rejected Merkel’s claim that her role was mainly sourcing theater tickets for fellow students. “Agitation and Propaganda, that was the group that was meant to fill people’s brains with everything you were supposed to believe in the GDR, with all the ideological tricks.”
Any vestigial revulsion that the former Agitation and Propaganda secretary might have felt at the pervasive censorship of the East German state was quickly swallowed when Merkel sought to co-opt social media firms to help contain the backlash against her pro-immigration stance. In September 2015, she confronted Mark Zuckerberg after her government had complained that Facebook wasn’t doing enough to crack down on xenophobic postings. Last month, her government announced plans for a new law to fine Facebook up to €500,000 for distributing fake news.
The concept of thought pollution, which fake news supposedly feeds, is intrinsically totalitarian. It implies there are those who speak the truth and there are those who do not, casting the latter as enemies of society and, nowadays, of the planet. “We live in a world of radical ignorance,” claims Stanford professor Robert Proctor. “Agnotology” – the study of deliberate propagation of ignorance – is a term coined by Proctor, whose interest in it was sparked by his study of the tactics of Big Tobacco in obscuring the harmful effects of smoking cigarettes.
The secret tobacco memo that aroused Proctor’s attention was written in 1969, five years after the Surgeon General’s first report warned of the dangers of tobacco smoking. According to the successor report marking the report’s 50th anniversary, per capita consumption of cigarettes (based on Treasury Department data) peaked in the early 1950s, and blipped up again before starting a multi-decade decline from the early 1960s.
By contrast, the tobacco industry in Britain in the 1950s – at the insistence of the industry’s chief statistician (he had been sacked and reinstated six weeks later) – decided not to dispute the epidemiological evidence linking smoking with lung cancer. Notwithstanding tobacco-industry neutrality, per capita cigarette consumption in Britain continued to rise through the 1960s, peaking only in the mid 1970s, more than a decade later than in the U.S.
Social phenomena can be far more complex – and more interesting – than Proctor’s simplistic morality tale allows. Indeed, it turns out that agnotology is a self-referring idea that, like fake news, is a tool of propaganda. According to Proctor, combating ignorance extends far beyond clarifying the evidence. Inevitably switching from smoking to climate change, Proctor gives the issue an ideological and philosophical framing: “The fight is not just over the existence of climate change, it’s over whether God has created the Earth for us to exploit, whether government has the right to regulate industry, whether environmentalists should be empowered, and so on. It’s not just about the facts, it’s about what is imagined to flow from and into such facts.” (Emphasis added.)
Facts and non-facts do not exist in isolation from their context, something that history teaches above all. From Proctor’s thoroughly researched but morally dubious The Nazi War on Cancer (1999), we learn that “the barriers which separate ‘us’ from ‘them’ are not as high as some would like to imagine.” Himmler, for example, wanted the Waffen-SS to be non-smoking, non-drinking vegetarians and voiced an opinion often expressed by today’s political Left: “We are in the hands of the food companies, whose economic clout and advertising make it possible for them to prescribe what we can and cannot eat.”
The Nazi war on cancer, Proctor argues, shows that “good” science can be pursued in the name of anti-democratic ideals: “We have to understand the fertility of fascism and not just its cruelty.” Fertile it proved to be. Nazi medicine had a direct conduit into America via the cancer chapter of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, quite possibly the most influential work of fiction of the second half of the 20th century. The most cited author in that chapter is the German-born American cancer specialist Wilhelm Hueper, who went back to Germany when Hitler seized power, and returned to America with the “germ plasm” of Nazi medicine — the belief that industrialization causes cancer.
Truth is sacrificed when one side asserts a monopoly of it.
Silent Spring (1962) was injected into the cauldron of the 1960s counterculture and the launch of the culture wars. That same year, Tom Hayden’s Students for a Democratic Society launched their campaign against the American corporation. The Marxist dialecticians of the Frankfurt School developed theories of the false consciousness of the “One-Dimensional Man” (the title of a 1964 book by Hebert Marcuse) to explain why American blue-collar workers had not acted in accordance with their class interest. Again, the American corporation was the focus of the attack: They were merchants of kitsch exploiting the emotional needs of the masses. Seen from this perspective, fake news is the heir to the Frankfurt School’s false consciousness of the 1960s. The revolt against political correctness and Donald Trump’s election therefore represents a new, and perhaps decisive, phase in the culture wars.
In The Demon in Democracy, the Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko argues that the ideology of the Western liberal-democratic state is not just in conflict with the values of society, but seeks to obliterate them. In the foreword, John O’Sullivan notes the ease with which the nomenklatura of the Communist bloc metamorphosed into the post-Communist governing elite, a phenomenon explained by their intuitive grasp of a totalitarian dynamic within the liberal-democratic state, one in which censoring non-compliant views becomes second nature. Nothing so exemplifies this as the career of Angela Merkel, German chancellor for eleven years and counting, and the veneration in which she’s held by American liberals from Barack Obama down.
Even in the U.S., the state is becoming increasingly estranged from the First Amendment. This is especially true of the climate wars and a heavily funded, politically powerful attempt to suppress climate dissent – including the #ExxonKnew campaign; last month’s court ruling to let climate scientist Michael Mann’s defamation suit against National Review, Mark Steyn, Rand Simberg, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute proceed; and scientists’ support for a California law to outlaw climate-change dissent.
There is only one antidote: vigorous defense, not just of the right, but of the culture of free expression. We might not ever know the truth. One thing is certain: Truth is sacrificed when one side asserts a monopoly of it.