Knowledge as Imagining the Possible Best, Composing, 27/02/2017

Since I’ve gotten back from Germany, I’ve been working on that post-truth article for SERRC that I’ve spoken about before. As a piece of writing, it’s another experiment that I’m glad the Reply Collective has given me a venue for.

I’m having some trouble in the first draft, though, as I try to balance two chains of argument. One is about the nature of subversion values. These are the values we associate with social progress at its grittiest – opposition and provocation of a socially conservative mainstream.

Because being openly gay – or having any kind of non-vanilla
hetero sexuality – is still a subversive act that makes social
conservatives uncomfortable and pushes difference forward in our
Through recent history in the West, subversion as a virtue and a value has been the exclusive province of groups and forces labelled progressive – the left, workers, ethnic and religious minorities, immigrants, women, LBGTQ people. Those sorts of folks.

So the content of subversive values is the imperative to point out and inadequacies of public morality. Maybe new differences have emerged in a society that now needs to accommodate these new styles of life. Or maybe people who’ve had to hide their differences because of oppression are now living openly and demanding basic equality.

Either way, the dynamic of subversion as a social process is the emergence of new differences, and the imperative to change mainstream morality to accept those differences.

Subversion values’ content faces a very different claim today in the conservative white nationalists who claim status as punks because they oppose a liberal mainstream. These people actually want to annihilate or remove differences from their society, and move toward a more homogeneous, oppressive social morality.

But because they oppose a mainstream, they associate themselves with subversion. And many of their public engagement tactics like online and real-life trolling employs literally the tactics of subversion – provoking offence to humiliate the offended and write off their own seriousness as being oversensitive, allowing them to continue spreading racism around the internet with even less push-back.

Countering the political activism of trolling is difficult – encouraging
their own trivialization in popular perception is itself a troll's weapon.
Far from "Don't feed the trolls," we need a weaponized humour that
renders them truly powerless, that mocks their power as true weakness
and reveals their confidence as over-compensation.
My second argument in this essay is about the peculiar character of what the Trump administration has labelled fake news – a new argument over the proper grounds of evidence.

In its original sense (four months ago), the term refers to the network of Russian and Macedonian meme and untrue article factories that flooded partisan Facebook pages with images and links contributing to a huge array of falsehoods and conspiracy theories in the 2016 election.

In the current sense (coined two months ago), Trump and his team have subverted the meaning of this term to refer to media outlets and institutions that produce information critical of Trump or which contradicts the preferred Trumpist world-view.

But this goes beyond simply the presentation of lies as truth, a typical propaganda move. Perhaps the original definition of fascist propaganda.

Bruno Latour's recent short article on Trumpism as the ideology of climate change denial comes close to the idea, but not quite. His argument is still stuck in that surface understanding of subversion, seeing yourself as the virtuous rebel by fighting the mainstream when the mainstream itself is becoming progressive and different.

No, there’s a deeper thing going on. Trumpism isn’t just a lie, though there are plenty of lies. Trumpist propaganda is itself a claim to truth. The truth that the mainstream media – which Trump, his spokespeople, loyalists, and supporters denounce as fake news – has failed to see.

Or in the words of Masha Gessen, failed to imagine.

The biggest blows to the liberal democratic internationalist order of the West – Trump’s election and Brexit’s referendum victory – were shocking because we did not believe they could happen. It was Trump, Brexit’s leaders, and the reactionary activists who worked for their victory who all understood the world better than the mainstream media who couldn’t imagine how their victory could be possible.

The truth that reaction can win is the truth that reactionaries recognize, and a complacent mainstream media, intellectual class, and popular morality can’t. Our blindness to that truth delegitimizes our claim to knowledge at all.

And justifies their claim to a deeper truth than any of us could know.

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