Bashkim Shehu: THE UNHOLY TRINITY OF NEW MEDIA, POST-TRUTH AND POPULISM

 

Bashkim Shehu is an Albanian fiction writer, who lives in exile in Barcelona. Many of his books have been published in Albania and some of them have been translated and published in French, English, Spanish, Catalan, Italian, Rumanian, and Serbian. He was awarded with the Prize Balkanika (2015), the most important literary award in the region, with the Special Mention of the Jury of Prix Méditerranné (France, 2018), and with several Albanian national prizes. He is also a translator of literature and of books from the field of humanities and social sciences. He is a founding member of Academia Balkanica Europeana, and editor-in-chief of The Bridge.

 

I apologize, just in case, if the title of this text may give the impression that the second and the third term, analogically corresponding to the Holy Ghost and the Son, emanate from the first one. Their relations are much more complex, and other factors interfere by all means.

Let me start with the second term. What does it mean “post-truth”? Why don’t we call it simply a lie? “As the vilest writer hath his readers, so the greatest liar hath his believers: and it often happens, that if a lie be believed only for an hour, it hath done its work”, wrote Jonathan Swift in 1710, in his essay The Art of Political Lying.  Further on: “We are told the devil is the father of lies, and was a liar from the beginning; so that, beyond contradiction, the invention is old: and, which is more, his first Essay of it was purely political… But although the devil be the father of lies, he seems, like other great inventors, to have lost much of his reputation, by the continual improvements that have been made upon him”. Where are we, then, in comparison to the good old times? Does the preposition “post” imply that truth is dead, in the same way that we speak about the death of God, or the death of the human being, or the death of metaphysics, or the death of the novel, or the death of art, or the death of modernity itself, whose history would be a long series of necrologies? What is the novelty, now, with regards to the truth?

In 1971, the corporate lawyer Lewis Powell Jr. addressed a confidential memorandum to the Director of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States. It was, indeed, a call to arms for a political cultural battle, and the enemies were identified as follows: “the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences”. Further on: “Social science faculties (the political scientists, economists, sociologists, and many historians) tend to be liberally oriented”. What Lewis Powell Jr. strategically proposed was, among other things, an ideological purge of the universities and a surveillance of the textbooks by corporate business appointed committees. His confidential memorandum was discovered by the Washington Post columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Jack Anderson, who denounced it as an attempt to undermine the democratic system. However, it is considered as the blueprint of a cultural campaign that gave rise to a powerful network of conservative think-tanks. It looks like the conservatives have learned better than anyone the lesson of Antonio Gramsci, a Marxist thinker, on cultural hegemony. Meanwhile, the liberals, or the progressive, or the left, or whatever we may call them, adopted a defensive attitude, stuck in a triumphalistic orthodoxy and the newspeak of the “politically correct”, leaving thus to their conservative opponents the attitude of anti-conformism and anti-taboo. And the conservatives have won the Kulturkampf. One of the consequences of this turn of the tide is significantly the loss of prestige of the humanities in our societies. This anti-Enlightenment tendency is complemented by leftist intellectuals with their post-modern relativism and a discourse no less identitarian than the conservative: for instance, Enlightenment is said to be Eurocentric, chauvinistic, related to slavery and colonialism and imperialism, and it is also said to be patriarchal and antifeminist. On the other hand, according to Michel Foucault, there is no knowledge, but something like power-knowledge, a kind of centaur image. And Richard Rorty has banned the word “truth”, by replacing it with the word “pragmatic”.

All these are eloquent symptoms of the cultural background in which the notion of post-truth appeared. Now, what is the meaning of this notion? Its first definition is attributed to the environmentalist blogger David Roberts, who, four hundred years after Jonathan Swift, in 2010, and more precisely, and by coincidence, on 1st of April, wrote that post-truth politics is the disconnection between public opinion and the substance of legislation. It amounts to systematic misinformation of the public. However, this definition reminds me of another kind of disconnection between the public, i.e. the voters, and their legislative body: currently, a considerable part of them do not feel represented. And it reminds me also of a play written by Vladimir Mayakovski in 1929. At a certain moment, the author goes to the future, to 1979, when communism has been established all over the world, and there is a scene of the world parliament, where there is nobody: the seats are empty. But, instead of a microphone, each seat has a loudspeaker, through which the voices of the non-present members of the parliament can be heard: thus, the empty parliament is made of by all the people of the world. This is at least what I remember: I was very young when I read it, sometime around 1979. This leads me now to another term of the unholy trinity: the term “populism”, although, except for despise towards democratic representation, it does not have much in common with communism.

“Populism” is a buzzword, and it is loosely applied to a wide and motley range of political phenomena: from Donald Trump to Syriza, from Bernie Sanders to the United Kingdom Independence Party, from Jeremy Corbyn to Marine le Pen, from Carles Puigdemont to Beppe Grillo, from  Podemos to Alternativ für Deutschland. The only thing they share is their divergence to mainstream politics and statu quo. For a clearer notion of populism, I would, first of all, refer to a definition by the incisive political scientist Ivan Krastev, drawing a distinction between populism and socialism in the broadest sense of the term, be it social-democratic or authoritarian, radical or moderate, libertarian or totalitarian. While populists identify themselves with the people and pretend that they are the people, socialists are an elite or a vanguard that pretends to go to the people, to enlighten the people and be the leadership of the people. I would even say that socialists almost do not speak of “people”, but of “working class”, although nowadays not so much, alternating it rather frequently with the idea of the societal majority. However, their idea about society implies diversity, whereas “the people” of populism is something like a block of steel or ice, homogeneous through and through, and essentially pure. In this respect, populism is very similar to nationalism, and that’s why it tends to blend with nationalism, as it does, though less frequently, with other ideologies, whence the difficulty to define it. Basically, the specific difference of populism is anti-elitism. I would also refer to a definition by the French scholar Guy Hermet. It has to do with time. While democratic liberal governance is intentionally slow, and this is more beneficent than harmful, and it is conditioned by priorities, so that the problems cannot be resolved all at once, populist politicians promise to resolve everything immediately, and sometimes they give the impression that they do, especially when their power is not limited by checks and balances and by normal procedures of legislation. This definition, though, has to be complemented with that of the characteristic of anti-elitism, and many times indeed they go inseparably together. For more specification, I would point to another distinction: symptomatically, populism tends to express itself through movements, or through the idea of movement, rather than parties. Moreover, it tends to despise parties as elite organizations. While parties imply representation, be it fictitious as in the case of totalitarianism, populism blurs the division between civil society and the political sphere, or rather between the street and governance: it annihilates therefore the symbolic dimension of popular sovereignty and, by the same token, it annihilates popular sovereignty itself. It is the accomplishment of Mayakovski’s utopia.

I don’t know whether this outline of populism is sufficiently clear and distinct, insofar as things can be clear and distinct when we talk about politics. Moreover, I am not an expert. It is an attempt, a reaction to the prevailing conceptual chaos. In any case, before using a term, we have to know what it means. Well, according to one of the most current definitions, a politician who addresses to the emotions of people is a populist. I wonder whether politicians had ever not addressed to emotions. Or is it that, when speaking to the public they are emotional and when they do it among themselves they are purely rational? If so, should they abstain from speaking to the public and should they become verbally endogamic and collectively autistic and do everything indoors? As I said, there is nowadays a disconnection between the political class and the citizens, as many of them do not feel represented. Populism is of course a political disease, but at the same time it is a symptom of another disease: a crisis of representation. When the machinery of democratic representation does not work properly, when the usual channels of connection are blocked somewhere, then populism appears and tends to produce a dangerous short-circuit between the citizens and the political power. It is the other side of popular sovereignty, the dark one. It is like Mr Hide to Dr Jekyll. Besides, not only populism itself, but also the term “populism” is quite often a post-truth product, by virtue of the usage of this term: quite often it is pronounced with the intention of stigmatizing all those who question or challenge the ruling ideological gadget dressed up like economic science.

Now, it is a common belief that the disconnection of the voters from the legislative body, and therefore the rise of populism, happens because people are ill-informed. I think this is a mistaken diagnosis. According to Princeton Professor Jan Werner-Müller: “Voters do not need detailed knowledge and preferences on every policy question; broad orientations and the capacity to take cues from trusted authorities… can be enough… The problem starts when citizens view every issue purely as a matter of partisan identity, so that the credibility of climate science, for example, depends on whether one is a Republican or a Democrat”. The first and important step in this direction was taken when, in 1987, the government of the United States was able to revoke the so-called fairness doctrine, which forced television and radio to expose different points of view on controversial issues. And it became, according to some experts, the catalyst for the first information bubbles. It was a step towards trench journalism. A further step, much more important, was taken with the appearance of Internet. Evgeny Morozov, an outstanding scholar in this domain, considers that diversity in the web is smaller than in traditional media, and that people tend to go to the website where they can read the information and the opinion that would confirm their own opinion. In many other countries the situation is not better. And it is getting worse with the thrust of other new media.

I am not saying that technology is the cause of populism and post-truth. Technology in itself is neutral. It only empowers people, and it depends on people whether such an empowerment will be positive or negative: it depends on our predisposal. So far, in terms of freedom, the balance is negative rather than positive. The threat comes from different sides. Russia is using Facebook as a weapon against Western democracies and in favour of populism in what the NATO calls the biggest information war in history. But no smaller is the threat stemming from us, from within our societies and within the individuals. According to the British political scientist Mark Leonard, the new media are endangering our individual autonomy: “The secret algorithms of the big technology companies determine how we perceive the world and make it more difficult for us to consciously make decisions… In the digital age, the greatest danger is not that technology increasingly faces free and autocratic societies, but that the worst fears of both Orwell and Huxley become manifest in both types of systems and create a different kind of dystopia. Citizens will have the illusion of being free and empowered, as they are fulfilling many of their deepest desires. In reality, their lives, the information they consume and the options they prefer will be determined by algorithms and platforms controlled by corporate and government elites that do not have to be held accountable”. A whistleblower of Cambridge Analytica, which was involved in the last presidential elections in the United States in favour of Donald Trump and also in the Brexit campaign in favour of Brexit, reveals the following: “We exploited Facebook… and built models to exploit what we knew about [their users] and target their inner demons.” On the other hand, a team of researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology have come to the following conclusions: “Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information… We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information”. This goes against the belief that reality exceeds fiction. As I am a fiction writer, which means “a person with a license to lie”, I am proud of it.