Did Fake News Come From Liberty or Harvard?


David Brooks’s recent column defending Western Civilization is bound to get the descendants of the New Left and the defenders of multiculturalism very angry.  But I think he ends the column with a very fair point:

These days, the whole idea of Western civ is assumed to be reactionary and oppressive. All I can say is, if you think that was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it.

Casey Williams, a Ph.D student in literature at Duke, doesn’t necessary defend Western Civilization in his recent op-ed in The New York Times, but he does seem to put the blame for our so-called “post-truth” society on those academics who have spent their careers undermining the very idea of truth.

As Darryl Hart writes at Old Life in a jab at Molly Worthen’s recent piece about how evangelicals contributed to our “post-truth society: “Want to know where fake news came from? Looks like it was Harvard not Liberty University.”

Here is a taste of Williams’s piece:

We’re used to this pattern by now: The president dresses up useful lies as “alternative facts” and decries uncomfortable realities as “fake news.” Stoking conservative passion and liberal fury, Trump stirs up confusion about the veracity of settled knowledge and, through sheer assertion, elevates belief to the status of truth.

Trump’s playbook should be familiar to any student of critical theory and philosophy. It often feels like Trump has stolen our ideas and weaponized them.

For decades, critical social scientists and humanists have chipped away at the idea of truth. We’ve deconstructed facts, insisted that knowledge is situated and denied the existence of objectivity. The bedrock claim of critical philosophy, going back to Kant, is simple: We can never have certain knowledge about the world in its entirety. Claiming to know the truth is therefore a kind of assertion of power.

These ideas animate the work of influential thinkers like Nietzsche, Foucault and Derrida, and they’ve become axiomatic for many scholars in literary studies, cultural anthropology and sociology.

From these premises, philosophers and theorists have derived a number of related insights. One is that facts are socially constructed. People who produce facts — scientists, reporters, witnesses — do so from a particular social position (maybe they’re white, male and live in America) that influences how they perceive, interpret and judge the world. They rely on non-neutral methods (microscopes, cameras, eyeballs) and use non-neutral symbols (words, numbers, images) to communicate facts to people who receive, interpret and deploy them from their own social positions.

Call it what you want: relativism, constructivism, deconstruction, postmodernism, critique. The idea is the same: Truth is not found, but made, and making truth means exercising power.

The reductive version is simpler and easier to abuse: Fact is fiction, and anything goes. It’s this version of critical social theory that the populist right has seized on and that Trump has made into a powerful weapon.

Read Williams’s entire piece here.



One thought on “Did Fake News Come From Liberty or Harvard?

  1. I suspect it’s not an either/or proposition. Our current moment is in some sense the product of the convergence of these two perspectives in a political culture already sharply divided along a number of fundamental lines. The fact that it’s the product of both “sides” is perhaps what makes it (feel) so totalizing in the moment and contributes to the apparent sense of “truth” as a luxury either side can ill afford.


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