Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Conservatives and Relativism About Truth

As the U.S Presidential election campaign intensifies, the national polls there show Hillary Clinton’s lead dissolving, and the race turning into a virtual dead heat. I am not surprised.  The groundwork has been laid for Donald Trump by several decades of conservative media and what I call its relativism about truth.  When Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh claim to be fair or objective or to be providing a “no-spin” zone, they can’t  really mean that, of course. What they do mean, I think, is that they think they have as much right to claim the mantle of truth as such stalwarts of the ‘liberal’ media as the CBS anchors like Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather, or the Editors of the New York Times. All of which is hogwash, of course: whatever liberal bias those journalists may have had was balanced and constrained by the highest standards of professional journalism, which in the past was concentrated in four large broadcast networks and in a robust and competitive  newspaper industry. Unfortunately, those days are long gone.

As a result, it has become easier for conservatives in America to paint ‘crooked’ Hillary Clinton as the equal and opposite of Donald Trump--an extreme left-winger and a corrupt one at that.   Never mind that Bernie Sanders effectively exposed her as an overly cautious and triangulating centrist politician, who never stuck her neck out on Iraq (like Barack Obama) or on Wall Street (like Sanders or Elizabeth Warren).

Somehow, we have gone from a world  where politicians and media sometimes lie to  one where they don’t care whether they tell the truth or not. Some blame technology for this development: the internet and social media can facilitate fact-checking, but that ability is outweighed by the tendency for ‘digital wildfires’  to spread more quickly than they can be put out. According to writer and TV producer Peter Pomerantsev, author of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, “All that matters is that the lie is clickable, and what determines that is how it feeds into people’s existing prejudices. Algorithms developed by companies such as Google and Facebook are based around your previous searches and clicks, so with every search and every click you find your own biases confirmed.” 

Yet even critics who stress the way that social media leads us into echo chambers of similar-minded people, recognize that it is on the Political Right that the most danger lies. We have seen Donald Trump make up facts on a whim, claim that he saw thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the Twin Towers coming down, or that the Mexican government purposefully sends ‘bad’ immigrants to the US, when fact-checking agencies rate 78% of his statements as untrue.  He persists in being the first nominee since 1968 to not release his tax returns, even as he attacks ‘crooked’ Hillary for not revealing all of her personal e-mails.  None of this matters to the 40-50- million angry people who are itching to get to the polls to have their anxieties responded to --or their prejudices validated.