Don’t both-sides the war on truth

Glad to see political obituaries for Trump appearing. But don’t let them both-sides it. Case in point is George Packer’s “The Legacy of Donald Trump” in the Atlantic (online version titled, “A Political Obituary for Donald Trump“).

Packer is partly right in his comparison of Trump’s lies to those of previous presidents:

Trump’s lies were different. They belonged to the postmodern era. They were assaults against not this or that fact, but reality itself. They spread beyond public policy to invade private life, clouding the mental faculties of everyone who had to breathe his air, dissolving the very distinction between truth and falsehood. Their purpose was never the conventional desire to conceal something shameful from the public.

He’s right that the target is truth itself, but wrong to attribute this to postmodernism. Trump is well-grounded in modernist authoritarianism, albeit with contemporary cultural flourishes. This ground was well covered by Michiko Kakutani, Jason Stanley, and Adam Gopnik, who wrote the week before Trump’s inauguration:

there is nothing in the least “postmodern” about Trump. The machinery of demagogic authoritarianism may shift from decade to decade and century to century, taking us from the scroll to the newsreel to the tweet, but its content is always the same. Nero gave dictates; Idi Amin was mercurial. Instruments of communication may change; demagogic instincts don’t.

This distinction matters, between Trump the modern authoritarian and Trump the victim of a world gone mad. You can see why later in Packer’s piece, when he both-sides it:

Monopoly of public policy by experts—trade negotiators, government bureaucrats, think tankers, professors, journalists—helped create the populist backlash that empowered Trump. His reign of lies drove educated Americans to place their faith, and even their identity, all the more certainly in experts, who didn’t always deserve it (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, election pollsters). The war between populists and experts relieved both sides of the democratic imperative to persuade. The standoff turned them into caricatures.

Disagree. Public health scientists and political pollsters are sometimes wrong, and even corrupt, including during the Trump era, but their failures are not an assault on truth itself (I don’t know what about the CDC he’s referring to, but except for some behavior by Trump appointees the same applies). We in the rational knowledge business have not been relieved of our democratic imperatives by the machinations of authoritarians. No matter how we are seen by Trump’s followers, we are not caricatures. The rise of authoritarianism and its populist armies can’t be laid at the feet of the reign of experts. In one sense, of course, anti-vaxxers only exist because there are vaccines. But that’s not a both-sides story. Everyone alive today is alive because of the reign of experts, more of less.

This reminds me of Jonah Goldberg’s ridiculous (but very common, among conservatives) attempt to blame anti-racists for racism: “The grave danger, already materializing, is that whites and Christians respond to this bigotry [i.e., being called racist, homophobic, and Islamophobic] and create their own tribal identity politics.” If Packer objects to the comparison, that’s on him.

That said, the know-nothing movement that Trump now leads obviously creates direct challenges that the forces of truth must rise to meet. The imperative for “engagement” among social scientists — the need to communicate our research and its implications, which I’ve discussed before — is partly driven by this reality. In the social sciences we have an additional burden because our scholarship is directly relevant to politics, so compared with the other sciences we are subject to heightened scrutiny and suspicion — our accomplishments are less the invisible infrastructure of daily survival and more the contested terrain of social and cultural conflict.

And, judging by our falling social science enrollments (except economics), we’re not winning.

So we have a lot of work to do, but we’re not responsible for the war on truth.

4 thoughts on “Don’t both-sides the war on truth

  1. Wait, isn’t psychology a social science? And I can’t really see business administration and management as anything else, either, though it’s not generally placed in that category.

    But now that I look at that chart, it’s amazing…can you explain anything on it? Like, why is biology so popular all of a sudden, and why is elementary education taking a nosedive? And honestly, I’d’ve thought psychology would be barely holding its own….

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      1. And I can see elementary education taking a nose dive, because teaching looks like a rather awful profession to be in as a result of COVID, too. I guess the comparison is between 2009 and 2019; it would be useful to have a comparison between 2018 and 2019 to see how much of these shifts are just between those two years.

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