Living in a world where its possible only the threat of Pee-Pee Tapes stands between us and nuclear Armageddon is unsettling. As is the realisation that the rich and powerful treat us with more and more contempt – David Davis revealing he hasn’t bothered to study the Brexit reports, as he leans back arms out as if he’s on a night out at the casino not facing public scrutiny in parliament. A sort of louche incompetent bluffing his way through Brexit. David Mundell informs us that telling Scotland how badly damaged it will be by would risk a second referendum . Michael Fallon complains that MPs shoudn’t criticise the barbaric Saudi regime because he’s trying to flog them arms.

Standards in British political life are in the toilet.

Amid the torrent of corruption pouring out of America, John Kelly’s lying has been justified by the White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders because his ‘lies about Frederica Wilson were ‘heartfelt,’ so he wasn’t wrong. Here Are 20 Lies Trump Chief of Staff John Kelly Told in Just 4 Minutes.

Expectations of standards in public life are collapsing. The political class is operating in a shameful manner. But at the heart of this collapse is a undermining of the concept of truth and an emergence of new forms of manipulation.

Shareblue report (‘Trump campaign lied, paid $5.9M to Russia-tied data firm it says played no “key role”’):

“Suddenly anxious to distance itself from a big data firm that the Trump campaign once bragged had steered the candidate to victory last year, Donald Trump’s team isn’t telling the truth in its latest attempt at damage control. And of course, Russia stands at the center of the latest obfuscation. The scrambling comes in the wake of Wednesday’s Daily Beast report that the head of Cambridge Analytica, which has been previously credited for Trump’s win last year, contacted Julian Assange last year in hopes of tracking down 30,000 Hillary Clinton emails. (Assange claims he rebuffed the request.).”

JJ Patrick, the investigative writer has explored in detail how the Trump is using Russian bots and a state-led propaganda machine to distract from bad news. He argues:  “there’s a bot network, supported by a disinformation network, being deployed specifically to distract from real news impacting Trump.” Read more here.

So there’s three phenomenon converging: a political class that seems to be operating with new levels of disregard and flagrant abuse of power, new forms of data manipulation and propaganda through social media (alongside the emergence of Dark Money) and our own complicity in a wavering commitment to ‘the truth’.

Fake News. Who Cares?

But says Fintan O’Toole:

“this is to miss the point of our particular political moment in the Anglophone world. […] The point is that neither Trump nor the Brexit leaders have ever believed for one moment that any of these promises are real. […] Their claims have the form and grammar of traditional political promises, but they bear no relation to anything they actually intend to do. […] Where is this new politics of fake reaction coming from? Like all products, it has a supply side and a demand side. The supply side is the world of media and branding. The Leave campaign was the product, not just of media barons such as Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre, but of the Frankensteins they have specialised in creating – chimeras who are half politician and half professional journalistic provocateur. It says it all that Johnson’s first pronouncement on what the campaign he had led actually meant for the lives of UK citizens came, not in a press conference or a public speech, but in his “exclusive” Daily Telegraph column, for which he is paid £275,000 a year. […] Both [Johnson and Gove] are highly practiced in a kind of meta-politics, in which commentary and activity, medium and message, are fused into one. In that meta-politics, what the US satirist Stephen Colbert called “truthiness” – stuff that feels like it should be true – trumps the truth every time. […] On the demand side of the equation, we know, of course, that this new reactionary politics appeals to something all too real. That is the desperation of people who have been dumped out of the working-class lives of industry and aspiration they once knew and into the humiliating experience of being discarded as human set-aside. We should not underestimate the extent to which Trump and the Brexiters feed off the sheer anomie of life in left-behind communities. Yes, it thrives on anger, but it also thrives on boredom. Working-class communities have been taught by late capitalism to consume fantasies. […] there is a comfort in the illusion: it breaks the boredom of a hopeless existence. …”

Fintan O’Toole, ‘Brexit and the politics of the fake orgasm’, Irish Times (Sat, Jul 2, 2016)

If Fintan is right, and he probably is, it doesn’t early matter that Better Together or Leave lied through their teeth. They don’t care and neither do their supporters. Take the people interviewed in Barnsley who feel overcome by immigration. The facts show that immigration is a tiny impact on that community but they have bought into something. Anger and Boredom – a compelling dynamic.

‘Elite rule’ is now something bandied about everywhere. Stuart Campbell argues vaguely “Maybe it’s time to let people join in.” Brendan O’Neill talks about a ‘cultural elite’.  Nigel Farage made a career out of it. Brexit and Trump were predicated on a mythical assault on the ‘liberal elite’ and the failed political class.

Everybody’s a downtrodden outsider, even if they’re not.

This feeds in on itself so that hate blogs like Guido Fawkes or InfoWars continue to have huge support. They are nihilist comfort blankets.

Life Beyond Facts

Reviewing Infoglut: How too much information is changing the way we think and know. (Routledge) Daniel Trottier writes:

“… One of the prominent theoretical concerns is the demise of symbolic efficiency. Drawing from Žižek, this refers to the supposed crisis of representation, and a waning tolerance for the space between the symbol and what it defines. Attempts to bear meaning or carry some kind of representation are suspect, and may be attacked in order to ‘get at the truth’. In a more general sense, this is connected to the “demise of the power of narrative, deliberation, and explanation” , and “the displacement of representation by correlation” . Any single account is not only suspect, but also lost among a deluge of contradictory information. For this reason, there is a renewed desire to access the truth through novel means.”

He continues: “The demise of symbolic efficiency is linked to a strain of populism frequently (but not exclusively) employed by Republican politicians and right-wing news outlets in the United States. It amounts to an interpretation of post-modernism where affect and gut instinct is privileged over diligent research. This scepticism seems empowering because it is flaunted as a critique of expertise. Yet any sense of empowerment is dampened when focusing on examples like affective marketing, where affect is solicited and processed in the absence of an actual community, something Andrejevic dubs “aggregation without collectivization” . Populism and critique form a conservative use of postmodernism, as it can be used consistently to reinforce a status quo.”

This theme clearly extends from Andrejevic’s earlier work on media cultures, specifically invocations of a savvy scepticism among audiences (2004). In these examples, it evinces an obsession with power of the image, and the claim that all truths are constructed. This negation of fact is coupled with a mobilization of affective intensities in order to compensate for waning belief. In a media culture championed by Fox News, facts are framed as an elitist attack. Media corporations supplement their control over information flows through affective facts. Here, Andrejevic notes that “power relies not on the attempt to control and monopolize the realm of empirical facts, but upon channelling this tautological logic: monitoring and modulating the ambient feeling tone that endows non-facts with their ‘truthiness’.

The penultimate chapter considers the logical extent of this demise, as it leads to collapse of critique into conspiracy theory. Andrejevic notes that “[a] landscape in which the sheer volume of available information highlights the impasse of representation – not just the difficulty of gaining a complete picture, but the apparent failure of those systems that were supposed to help us adjudicate between rival accounts – provides fertile ground for the rehabilitation and reconfiguration of conspiracy theory”.

[This is from Daniel Trottier – “Cutting through the Clutter” and Other Big Data Promises: A Review of Mark Andrejevic’s “Infoglut”, tripleC 11(2): pp.425-427, 2013

Andrejevic, M. and Steinbeck, J. (2013) Infoglut: How too much information is changing the way we think and know. United Kingdom: Routledge]

This is now spiraling out of control and feeding itself.

As Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker have put it:

“Disaffection with politics and politicians has been on the rise since the war. Survey data reveals that more and more citizens view British politicians negatively – out for themselves, not truthful, in the pay of special interests. The febrile climate of the campaign has seen such views exploited, and the tragic murder of Jo Cox has offered a powerful reminder of the threats faced by MPs serving their constituents and of how anti-political rhetoric has poisoned the well of democracy.

This trend of rising negativity is backed up by evidence from Mass Observation, the archive which holds the diaries of volunteer writers dating back to the 1940s. These show a rise in the prevalence of grievances with the way politics is conducted and rising intensity of ill-feeling towards the political class. During the 1945 election campaign, citizens tended to write in relatively measured terms about politicians and political parties. Now they express ‘hatred’ for politicians who make them ‘angry’, ‘incensed’, ‘outraged’, ‘disgusted’, and ‘sickened’. Politicians are described as arrogant, boorish, cheating contemptible, corrupt, creepy, deceitful, devious, disgraceful, fake, feeble, loathsome, lying, money-grabbing, parasitical, patronising, pompous, privileged, shameful, sleazy, slimy, slippery, smarmy, smooth, smug, spineless, timid, traitorous, weak, and wet.”

They conclude:

“The tail winds of anti-politics are behind the campaign to leave the EU. Distrust of politicians is one of the strongest predictors of support for Brexit – alongside Englishness, anxiety about immigration and economic pessimism. Outers tend also to be distrustful of ‘experts’, preferring to trust the man or woman in the street. This explains why the anti-establishment rhetoric of the Leave campaign, and its disregard for experts, has been so effective…Economic division is reinforcing this political resentment.”

So we hate our politicians and seek reinforcement of our beliefs in lieu of facts and congregate around online ‘watering holes’ that confirm our beliefs and in closed networks that support our unacknowledged prejudices. The politicians increasingly treat us with contempt and the media is widely loathed.

Then it gets worse.

If the channels of public discourse are contaminated this has been heightened by the impact of Brexit, and before that the indyref, as groups stare across the divide in blinking mutual incomprehension. As Anthony Barnett has put it (‘Why Brexit? It’s the English, stupid‘):

“Brexit is an act of British nationalism. It is a claim that Britain can and should be a global force on its own, and that the participation of Britain in Europe is a form of subordination to a European empire. But Scotland, Northern Ireland and London voted by very large majorities to Remain. The source of this British nationalism is a frustrated England. The large majority of the English who backed Brexit are frustrated in one obvious political sense. There is no institution that represents the interests of England. Instead, they identify with ‘Great Britain’ and this turns them against Europe.”

And this isn’t an abstract worry. The reports that we can’t read because they will upset us too much aren’t full of really good news about the economy. As the economy suffers from this madness those people most affected are those people most vulnerable and yes they map against those congregating in paranoia and easily susceptible to the politics of scapegoating.

Does it matter if we are lied to? Of course it does. But it matters less if we lie to ourselves.

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