This current crisis over values and authority could be a turning point for society - or the last chapter of our decline and fall says Joyce McMillan
On Sunday 4 December, just a few weeks after the US presidential election, a 28-year-old gunman with an assault rifle was arrested at a pizza restaurant in Washington D.C. after firing several shots, entering the building, and starting to threaten staff. He said he was there to investigate online reports he had read, which said that the restaurant was the headquarters of a child abuse ring involving Hillary Clinton; he later said that he now realised this wasn’t true, and apologised for his actions.
It was a trivial event, in the sense that no-one was hurt. Yet it seemed, in some ways, like an incident that encapsulated all that was wrong with last year’s Presidential campaign; the submerging of real political argument about policy and priorities under an avalanche of lies, half-truths, smears and allegations against the candidates, not least against Mrs Clinton. And now, it’s becoming apparent that Donald Trump’s election may only have marked the beginning of this new age of “fake new” and allegations about fake news. As I write, dispute is still raging, across the internet and in conventional media, about the credibility of this week’s sensational reports - absolutely denied by the President elect - that Russian intelligence services hold material on Donald Trump so compromising that he is effectively at their command.
And in trying to understand what is happening, it seems increasingly clear to me that what we are seeing is not so much a “post-truth” era in politics, as an even more wide-ranging crisis of values and authority, brought on over decades by an establishment which continued to use words like freedom, transparency, democracy, justice and truth, while in fact presiding over policies which achieved the exact opposite. From the various dodgy dossiers that took Britain and the US into the Iraq War, to the big lie that soaraway economic growth in the age of neoliberalism would always “trickle down” to ordinary workers, our elites have succeeded, over the past generation, in bringing many of those terms into disrepute, both at home and - even more markedly - in countries impacted by western foreign policy.
And when, after 2008, their economic world-view began to fall apart, they often showed no compunction in allying themselves with the kind of mainstream media which, historically, have never hesitated to invent or distort stories to support their own hate-mongering political agenda.
What has changed now, though, is that an increasing numbers of voters have had enough of this reign of hypocrisy, and therefore - it seems - of all the cherished western values that leaders like Tony Blair and Hillary Clinton claimed to hold dear. During Donald Trump’s election campaign, the single most shocking aspect to liberals like Meryl Streep, for example, was that nothing Trump could do or say seemed to outrage voters who had apparently washed their hands not only of establishment economic policy, but also of tiresome dominant ideas about treating women and black people as equals, or not mocking people with disabilities in public. “I will never, for as long as I live, understand why this was not the end of it,” tweeted one despairing American voter this week, reposting the scene in which Trump imitated and mocked a disabled journalist; and millions, on the anti-Trump side, shared his feelings.
And it goes without saying, of course, that if this new hostility towards received ideas of equality and justice is dangerous and tragic, in its power to turn back the clock on years of progress, then so is the matching hostility to the whole idea of truth, and of authoritative factual opinion. It is true that at times, over the last few decades, “expert opinion” has suborned itself to the demands of the wealthy and powerful in ways that have tended to discredit it.
Yet for all the difficulty we human beings often experience in distinguishing truth from lies, the one escape route which leads inevitably to destruction is the easy mantra that truth does not exist anyway, and that one version of reality is as good as another.
To put it bluntly, this vague post-modern belief - though embraced in theory by many - is manifest nonsense. It’s certainly not given to us to know the whole truth, in any area; but every step of progress our species has ever made, in medicine, in technology, in science, in our understanding of ourselves and our society, has been due to the efforts of people who felt driven to work towards a greater understanding of our world, and to piece together - fact by fact and detail by detail - a more accurate and useful picture of it, on which to build a better future.
Of course, many of the facts about our current time are frightening and hard to grasp; and it is therefore doubly worrying to see Donald Trump appointing many individuals to his government who have made careers out of rejecting scientific information which is inconvenient to their ideological beliefs.
Yet if we are to find a way of pulling our civilisation through the crisis in which it now finds itself, it can only be through the efforts of scientists who continue to work with all the integrity and patience they can muster, of those historians, artists and researchers who strive to understand our history and the society to which it has given birth, and perhaps - in no small measure - to journalists who continue, despite sometimes shocking pressures, to try to seek out the truth, and to tell it as it is.
And in the end, of course, that quest for truth also depends on all those other values that have been so much abused; on intellectual independence, honesty and curiosity, on a basic sense of justice expressed through our economic and social structures, and on the idea of government that is fundamentally accountable to the knowledge and views of the people. If we betray one of those principles, we finally betray them all; and if the history of the last 40 years in western politics has been one of mounting betrayal, then this alarming moment of crisis must either be a turning-point in that story, or the beginning of a long final chapter, charting our decline and fall.