2017-01-23

Narcissism And Truth In Politics

These guys are becoming an easy target these days, but in this case they happen to have saddled-up one of my hobby horses, so it's time to comment.

The topic du jour is "post-truth" and journalism. If you're committed to taking the written world only ever at face-vale, as the Sweet Talkers seem to be, then the question is why don't facts matter so much in politics? Why does the mainstream media so often publish lies?

The question not being asked - the question that actually contains the answer - is Why do I keep reading all these articles, even when the majority are ideologically slanted, many are factually incorrect, and the rest don't tell me anything I don't already know?

Well, here's a five-year-old explanation for you. It's got everything we're still talking about today: fake news, ideological polarization, and one important fact about the news you read:
It's easy to guess that the target demo for Fox & Friends is white women over 55 who have to get their teenage kids off to the methadone clinic and are perfectly content with a flip phone. "I don't need a touchscreen to fellowship with the Lord." Fair point. Gretchen Carlson is a standard example of what that demo calls a "well put together woman"-- heavy foundation, dresses that fit easily over Spanx and the hypercoiffed hairdo preferred by men who first ejaculated in the 1970s. I just got the shivers. Fun fact: Michele Bachmann was her babysitter back in the day. "Michele who?" Exactly. Remember how you were told she mattered, and you believed it? Kept you out of the game for 2 years 11 months, well done. Assange was right, the internet does make it easier for us to think for ourselves. 
What's not easy to guess, yet importantly true, is that the other target demo for Fox & Friends is everyone who viscerally hates that first demo. Do you think it upsets Fox that their footage is making The Huffington Post a lot of money? All part of the plan. The battle isn't Red v. Blue, but Purple v. You. You lose.
Post-truth means we have entered an era in which truth is literally unimportant to people. See for example here, which should give you just a taste of the overall argument against Scott Sumner's Rorty-ish tendency to say anything and everything as long as it advances his narrative.

It comes down to the reason people advance a narrative today. It used to be that the narrative was intended to persuade. Now the intent is somewhere between magical thinking (take, for instance, Trump's claim that God made it stop raining for his inaugural address) and quasi-religious team cheer-leading (take, for example, a "women's march" that has no clear policy objective).

Stripped to its essence, "public discourse" has gone from making claims to swearing allegiance to groups who make claims. That's identity politics for you. Note well the difference between "I believe in women's rights" and "I am part of the group that believes in women's rights." The first statement gives you something to talk about; the second statement is... well, I'd use the phrase "a mask," but others would use the phrase "moral grandstanding" What good is it to make claims and support them with evidence if you don't genuflect to our collective sense of identity?

Post-truth means that advertisers and politicians are the same people now. See how many SEO specialists write for think-tanks these days. It's not about the issues anymore, it's about branding. What's your brand? People don't vote according to their party, but according to their brand. That's why you've got Silicon Valley techno-libertarians and "libertarians for Trump." You'd think a bunch of people committed to principle - that is, you'd think libertarians, at least, if anyone - would be able to understand and sympathize with those who voted the other way. But that's not what happened. Why not? Branding.

To be sure, we all want facts to matter. But we just want them to matter. That doesn't mean they actually do. In the end, all these discussions are about branding, which is one reason why I spend so much time emphasizing the importance of results over theory. Political theory in the modern landscape is a "vanity project." It's not about what you believe, it's about how you believe it. Lew Rockwell and Roderick Long are both anarchists. Why does the first name make fans of the second name bristle, and vice-versa, if they're both committed to free market anarchism?

All anyone really cares about is their brand. It's a modern problem.