A recent commentary in The New York Times by William Davies entitled “The Age of Post-Truth Politics” raises two interesting points: In this modern world of “facts for hire” we are less likely to believe what we are told, and the constant stream of data now gathered on every fluctuation of our moods and attitudes points to a worrisome future of finger-to-the-wind politics that will likely lead to poor decision-making.
Before we begin wringing our hands, I must hasten to point out that the learned class have been predicting the demise of our collective judgment since the dawn of time; our own Electoral College, for example, exists solely to protect American democracy from the irrational decisions of the mob when choosing our leaders. “Facts” have, in addition, always been spun to fit one convenient—or perhaps profitable—narrative or another, and anyone who has somehow reached the age of eight without developing a healthy skepticism regarding the motivations of the adult world would clearly benefit from a sharp rap with a stout stick. I think Mr. Davies is dancing on the edge of our modern malaise, but I don’t believe the root problem is the quality or quantity of the information that we are now using to make decisions.
I instead believe that we are now living in what we could perhaps call “The Age of Un-Faith”, and the most pressing issue facing our nation and the world today is simply that we don’t trust our important public and private institutions because we have learned all too well that their leaders will almost always lie to protect themselves and the favored few—and care little for the damage their lies cause to the rest of us.
To avoid too voluminous a list, allow me to stick to just a few domestic highlights for illustration. We now know that our nation’s elected leaders have misled us about the reasons behind virtually every armed conflict (remember that many were not “wars”) since the end of World War II. We were once told that steep tax cuts for the wealthy would pay for themselves—and guarantee balanced budgets and never ending economic prosperity. Too many corporations to count have lied about the safety and efficacy of their products or the soundness of their finances. Football players obviously need not worry about the long-term health consequences of repeated concussive blows to the head, and fracking couldn’t possibly be contaminating your groundwater. Oh, and just in case you somehow missed it, your benevolent government lied to you about spying on all your phone calls, mail, and Internet—it’s for your own good, by the way.
To not have any faith in the “truth” of anything we are told is perhaps, when all is said and done, the most reasonable and rational response possible. We should expect to be lied to by our leaders on occasion for reasons both fair and foul, but to be lied to so long, so often, and so brazenly causes a callous to crust over our credulity. The wonder would be were it otherwise, and the fact that we have turned into an angry world of individuals that refuse to be led is a surprise only to those at the highest levels of business, government, and academia—those, in other words, most insulated from the consequences of their own feckless behavior.
Unfortunately, those who are angry and lacking faith in their institutions and leaders are not going to be much attracted to solutions that require personal responsibility and shared sacrifice—as so many inevitably do—simply because they have no faith in the veracity of their leaders or truth of the situation at hand. This will certainly narrow the range of possible political solutions to the many carefully concealed catastrophes now crashing on our collective doorsteps, and we can expect that more and more veteran politicians will decide now is the perfect time to retire and buy a ranch—in Costa Rica. We’re going to be looking for someone to blame when it all comes down, and it would be a very good idea for many to be somewhere far, far away.
It would not be unreasonable to expect a long run of “every man for himself” political, economic, and social self-interest that will further fracture our nation along generational, gender, and geographic fault lines. I will, however, spit in the eye of any self-righteous pundit who pontificates about how “selfish” or “uncaring” our nation has become—we are neither. We are simply weary of being played for chumps, and our insularity is the result of a loss of faith that is largely the fault of leaders who have spent several generations taking advantage of our innocent trust in their good intentions.