Authoritarian Allure: Reading #1 — Bullshit and other Entertainments  



Authoritarian Allure    Reading #1


On Bullshit [excerpts] (2005)

Harry Frankfurt


[1] . . . We have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory. I propose to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit, mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis. I shall not consider the rhetorical uses and misuses of bullshit. My aim is simply to give a rough account of what bullshit is and how it differs from what it is not— or (putting it somewhat differently) to articulate the structure of its concept . . .


[2] It does seem that bullshitting involves a kind of bluff. It is closer to bluffing, surely than to telling a lie. But what is implied concerning its nature by the fact that it is more like the former than it is like the latter? Just what is the relevant difference here between a bluff and a lie? Lying and bluffing are both modes of misrepresentation or deception. Now the concept most central to the distinctive nature of a lie is that of falsity: the liar is essentially someone who deliberately promulgates a falsehood. Bluffing too is typically devoted to conveying something false. Unlike plain lying, however, it is more especially a matter not of falsity but of fakery. This is what accounts for its nearness to bullshit. For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony. In order to appreciate this distinction, one must recognize that a fake or a phony need not be in any respect (apart from authenticity itself) inferior to the real thing. What is not genuine need not also be defective in some other way. It may be, after all, an exact copy. What is wrong with a counterfeit is not what it is like, but how it was made. This points to a similar and fundamental aspect of the essential nature of bullshit: although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false. The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.


[3] [Some] presume not only that there is an important difference between lying and bullshitting, but that the latter is preferable to the former. Now the elder Simpson surely did not consider bullshitting morally superior to lying. Nor is it likely that he regarded lies as invariably less effective than bullshit in accomplishing the purposes for which either of them might be employed. After all, an intelligently crafted lie may do its work with unqualified success. It may be that Simpson thought it easier to get away with bullshitting than with lying. Or perhaps he meant that, although the risk of being caught is about the same in each case, the consequences of being caught are generally less severe for the bullshitter than for the liar. In fact, people do tend to be more tolerant of bullshit than of lies, perhaps because we are less inclined to take the former as a personal affront. We may seek to distance ourselves from bullshit, but we are more likely to turn away from it with an impatient or irritated shrug than with the sense of violation or outrage that lies often inspire. The problem of understanding why our attitude toward bullshit is generally more benign than our attitude toward lying is an important one, which I shall leave as an exercise for the reader. The pertinent comparison is not, however, between telling a lie and producing some particular instance of bullshit. . . .


[4] Another worthwhile source is the title essay in The Prevalence of Humbug by Max Black. I am uncertain just how close in meaning the word humbug is to the word bullshit. Of course, the words are not freely and fully interchangeable; it is clear that they are used differently. But the difference appears on the whole to have more to do with considerations of gentility, and certain other rhetorical parameters, than with the strictly literal modes of significance that concern me most. It is more polite, as well as less intense, to say "Humbug!" than to say "Bullshit!" For the sake of this discussion, I shall assume that there is no other important difference between the two, Black suggests a number of synonyms for humbug, including the following: "balderdash", "claptrap", "hokum", "drivel", "buncombe", "imposture", and "quackery". This list of quaint equivalents is not very helpful. But Black also confronts the problem of establishing the nature of humbug more directly, and he offers the following formal definition:

Humbug: deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody's own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.


[5] A similar formulation might be offered as the essential characteristics of bullshit . . . No doubt what Black has in mind is that humbug is necessarily intended to deceive, that its misrepresentation is not merely inadvertent. In other words, it is deliberate misrepresentation. Now if, as a matter of conceptual necessity, an intention to deceive is an invariable feature of humbug, then the property of being humbug depends at least in part upon the perpetrator's state of mind. It cannot be identical, accordingly, with any properties― either inherent or relational― belonging just to the utterance by which the humbug is perpetrated . . .


[6] It does seem that bullshitting involves a kind of bluff. It is closer to bluffing, surely than to telling a lie. But what is implied concerning its nature by the fact that it is more like the former than it is like the latter? Just what is the relevant difference here between a bluff and a lie? Lying and bluffing are both modes of misrepresentation or deception. Now the concept most central to the distinctive nature of a lie is that of falsity: the liar is essentially someone who deliberately promulgates a falsehood. Bluffing too is typically devoted to conveying something false. Unlike plain lying, however, it is more especially a matter not of falsity but of fakery. This is what accounts for its nearness to bullshit. For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony. In order to appreciate this distinction, one must recognize that a fake or a phony need not be in any respect (apart from authenticity itself) inferior to the real thing. What is not genuine need not also be defective in some other way. It may be, after all, an exact copy. What is wrong with a counterfeit is not what it is like, but how it was made. This points to a similar and fundamental aspect of the essential nature of bullshit: although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false. The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.


[7] In Eric Ambler's novel Dirty Story, a character named Arthur Abdel Simpson recalls advice that he received as a child from his father:

Although I was only seven when my father was killed, I still remember him very well and some of the things he used to say.... One of the first things he taught me was, "Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through."


[8] The elder Simpson identifies the alternative to telling a lie as "bullshitting one's way through." This involves not merely producing one instance of bullshit; it involves a program of producing bullshit to whatever extent the circumstances require. This is a key, perhaps, to his preference. Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it.


[9] He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires. This freedom from the constraints to which the liar must submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that his task is easier than the task of the liar. But the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberative than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and independent, with mare spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar notion of the "bullshit artist."


[10] What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.


[11] This is the crux of the distinction between him and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor co conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.


[12] It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose . . .


[13] For the bullshitter it is in itself neither a reason in favor nor a reason against. Both in lying and in telling the truth people are guided by their beliefs concerning the way things are. These guide them as they endeavor either to describe the world correctly or to describe it deceitfully. For this reason, telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way that bullshitting tends to. Through excessive indulgence in the latter activity, which involves making assertions without paying attention to anything except what it suits one to say, a person's normal habit of attending to the ways things are may become attenuated or lost. Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.


[14] One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are but that cannot be anything except bullshit.


[15] Why is there so much bullshit? Of course it is impossible to be sure that there is more of it nowadays than at other times. There is more communication of all kinds in our time than ever before, but the proportion that is bullshit may not have increased. Without assuming that the incidence of bullshit is actually greater now, I will mention a few considerations that help to account for the fact that it is currently so great. Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person's obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled― whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others― to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant.


[16] Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country's affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person's opinions and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.


[17] The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These "anti-realist" doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.


[18] But it is preposterous to imagine that we ourselves are determinate, and hence susceptible both to correct and to incorrect descriptions, while supposing that the ascription of determinacy to anything else has been exposed as a mistake. As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them. Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial― notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.


Ari Rabin-Havt

Lies Incorporated: The World of Post-Truth Politics  (2016)

Chapter 2 ― Tobacco's Sequel: Climate Change  [excerpts]


[1] In 1998, the American Petroleum Institute, the principal trade association and lobbying group representing the fossil fuel industry, convened a series of meetings at its Washington, D.C., offices to discuss potential industry responses to the major climate treaty being negotiated to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases. Among the attendees were representatives from some of the country's largest oil companies, including Exxon, Chevron, and Southern Company. The plan to wage war against the treaty— the Kyoto Protocol— was multifaceted. To challenge the science used to justify the need for environmental protections, industry leaders sought to recruit scientists who could counter with industry-approved "science." Early recruits included the Science and Environment Pol­icy Project, founded by Fred Singer, a prominent physicist who had worked on early American satellite programs. He also argued against the health impacts of secondhand smoke in the 1990s, and by 1998 was a leading climate denier. In an interview for the documentary film Merchants of Doubt (based on the book coauthored by science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway), Singer expressed that he "still believes the EPA has cooked the data on secondhand smoke." He also told the interviewer he was "annoyed by the fact this tobacco business comes up every time when I speak about global warming, which has nothing to do with tobacco."


[2] Another early recruit was Frederick Seitz, one of America's most prominent scientists and head of the National Academy of Sciences from 1962 to 1969. Seitz was also chairman of the George C Marshall Institute, which had defended the science behind Ronald Reagan's space missile defense system known as Star Wars and had been involved with the tobacco industry. Like the tobacco companies who met in New York in 1953, Exxon knew very early on that the burning of fossil fuels was changing the planet's climate and would impact the lives of billions of people. An investigation by the Pulitzer Prize-winning environmental news website Inside Climate News found that Exxon senior scientist James Black told the company's management committee in July 1977 that "there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels" . . .


[3] By 1989, Exxon knew that global warming was caused by burning fossil fuels, and that the Natuna project "would be the largest point source of CO2 in the world." Even with this information, in the 1990s Bernstein led the science and technology advisory committee of a group funded by the fossil fuel industry, the Global Climate Coalition, that according to The Guardian, "lobbied aggressively against the scientific consensus around the causes of climate change." The admission that Exxon and Bern­stein knew about climate change so early exposes the depth of their dishonesty.


[4] Exxon received scientific data about the causes of climate change in 1977, 1978, and 1981 and had access to additional, fac­tual information in subsequent years. Yet in 1997, Exxon CEO Lee Raymond gave a speech to the World Petroleum Congress in which he said the claim that carbon emissions caused climate change "defies common sense and lacks foundation in our current understanding of the climate system." Exxon knew the truth, but spent decades funding research to create confusion and public uncertainty about the very existence of climate change. Exxon wasn't alone in this behavior. The year after Raymond's speech, Exxon and other major fossil fuel companies funded a coordinated effort to deny the existence of climate change and opposed the Kyoto Protocol. Not only did the companies seek to recruit scientists to fight real science with industry-created "facts," they also planned to train the scientists "in public relations so they [could] help convince journalists, politicians and the public that the risk of global warming" was not enough of a certainty to regulate fossil fuels. This was precisely the model tobacco compa­nies employed half a century earlier. With a budget of $600,000, not including ads, the group would lead an effort to convince the media that climate science was "uncertain." Their goal was for this misinformation to infiltrate the consciousness of the public at large, which would then "raise questions with policymakers." Their benchmarks for success were clear. According to a follow-up memo summarizing the results of the meeting, "victory will be achieved when" the media recognizes the "uncertainties in climate science," "recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the 'conventional wisdom' accepted by average citizens, and the views of those supporting the Kyoto Protocol "on the basis of extant science appear to be out of touch with reality."


[5] The lessons learned from the decades-long fight waged by Lies, Incorporated on behalf of tobacco companies were applied to the fight over climate change. The parallels between the two cam­paign efforts could not be more striking, which is not surpris­ing, since several of the critical players were the same. Principal among them was Dr. Frederick Seitz, who handed out $45 million in grants from the tobacco industry. According to Merchants of Doubt author Naomi Oreskes, Seitz's grant program for the tobacco companies was designed to be a diversion. She noted in an interview that much of the work "wasn't phony science, it was real science that was distracting." For example, Seitz would "fund research on the relationship between asbestos and cancer. Fund research on the relationship between radon exposure and cancer. And so then the CEO of a tobacco company can get up in public and say there are a lot of different causes of lung cancer."


[6] Ultimately, Seitz wore out his welcome with the tobacco com­panies, and in 1989, a Philip Morris executive wrote in an internal company memo that "Dr. Seitz is quite elderly and not sufficiently rational to offer advice." Yet in 2001, the Heartland Institute, one of the principal think tanks funded by the fossil fuel industry to deny the existence of global warming, found him rational enough to author an article in their magazine, The Heartlander. In it, Dr. Seitz claims "the scien­tific facts indicate that all the temperature changes observed in the last 100 years were largely natural changes and were not caused by carbon dioxide produced in human activities."


[7] Even a decade and a half ago, this statement was out of step with the views of the vast majority of scientists. The findings of thousands of studies, and the consensus of the global scientific community, had already concluded that the Earth was warming and the cause was likely the carbon dioxide we were dumping into our atmosphere. Oreskes and her coauthor Erik Conway observed in their book that ideology, not necessarily money, drew scientists like Seitz and physicist Fred Singer to help the tobacco and fossil fuel industries. They "shared a kind of political ideology" that was "deeply, deeply anti-communist" and believed that government intervention, i.e., regulation, was detrimental to the marketplace. Acknowledging that there is a giant environmental problem such as climate change, one that can only be solved through a massive regulatory scheme that must be negotiated on a global scale, invariably conflicts with conservative ideology . . .


[8] According to Oreskes, as the Cold War ended, Seitz, Singer, and their colleagues begin "systematically attacking" other issues that shared a common thread: "the need for government action." This behavior suggests their advocacy was not based on science or financial gain but instead on a "political debate about the role of government." Seitz and Singer came to believe that regulation of all kinds would inevitably increase government involvement in people's lives, which would ultimately lead to the Soviet-style totalitarianism they had fought against.


[9] This is the link between corporate public policy goals and conservative ideology, the fear of government regulation, and the use of labels such as "fascist" and "communist" to demonize opponents. It is easy to see climate deniers in the media and rationalize their beliefs as the product of being bought off. But ideology often plays just as strong a role in these efforts as monetary gain. The overlap between climate change and the tobacco industry did not simply consist of a few shared scientists. As the tobacco companies defended themselves against regulations targeting secondhand smoke, they actively participated in con­current efforts to deny climate change . . .


[10] The memo suggested an argument that "economic growth cannot afford to be held hostage to paternalistic overregulation," while claiming that "improving indoor air quality is a laudable goal that will never be accomplished as long as tobacco smoke is the sole focus of regulators." By framing their arguments this way, APCO not only challenged limits on cigarettes and other tobacco products but also on carbon dioxide emissions. As with tobacco use, beyond a few scientists primarily funded by the industry, the overwhelming consensus in the scientific community is that the Earth is warming and humans are the primary cause, due to our reliance on burning fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The science backing up this assertion is decades old and comprehensive.


[11] The basic premise of global warming is easy to understand. When we burn fossil fuels— gasoline or coal, for example— they release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This gas traps heat from the sun, preventing it from leaving Earth and escaping out into space, which warms the planet. The resulting temperature fluctuation leads to rising sea levels, droughts, and floods. Since the industrial revolution, humans have become ever more reliant on the burning of fossil fuels, and as a result, an increased quantity of gas becomes trapped in our atmosphere. In recent years, the science around climate change has become even more conclusive . . .


[12] A number of scientists who were originally global warming skeptics changed positions as they studied the issue, and the data became more conclusive. Best known among this group is Uni­versity of California at Berkeley physicist Dr. Richard Muller. At one time Muller was a leading climate change skeptic, doubting the underlying data that suggested the Earth was warming. Now he calls himself "a converted skeptic." Muller wrote in The New York Times in July 2012 that after studying the data he "concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct" and that "humans are almost entirely the cause" of this change in temperature. Ironically, Muller's research was funded in part with a $150,000 grant from the Koch brothers, who control the largest privately held corporation in the world and have spent a not-insignificant part of their fortunes casting doubt on the existence of climate change. There is no evidence the results of Muller's work has influenced their opinion on the existence of climate change . . .


[13] One new element of the climate battle has been the increas­ingly partisan divide of science. Unlike the tobacco industry, fossil fuel companies can rely on a political climate that allows conservative free marketers to turn science into a left versus right battle. This continues the policy stalemate that only benefits those whose bottom line relies on not solving the climate crisis. Between fossil fuel and conservative interest groups, billions have been spent to fund a network of groups that seems to exist solely to deny the existence of climate change. As early as 1991, industry groups led by the Edison Electric Institute, the National Coal Association, and the Western Fuels Association began an aggressive campaign of misinformation. The Climate Council and the Information Council on the Environment (also known as ICE) was, like the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, formed as a public relations effort designed to muddy the existing science.


[14] This group of deniers, according to Ross Gelbspan, an acclaimed climate change author and former editor of The Wash­ington Post and The Boston Globe, "launched a blatantly misleading campaign" that was explicitly designed, according to an internal memo, to "reposition global warming as theory rather than fact." In addition to acting as a public relations clearing house for climate change skeptics, ICE followed the playbook of the Tobacco Institute by taking out newspaper ads with headlines like "If the Earth is getting warmer, why is Minneapolis getting colder?" This message was clearly designed to obfuscate the issue— seasonal fluctuations in particular areas mean nothing when, as the grim results keep reminding us, global temperatures continue to rise . . .


[15] Mark Morano explained the advantage he has when debating scientists on television: "You go up against a scientist, most of them are going to be in their own policy wonk world or area of expertise . . . very arcane, very hard to understand, hard to explain, and very boorrring." Morano's goal is maintaining the status quo. He explicitly makes this point in Merchants of Doubt, noting, "Gridlock is the greatest friend a global warming skeptic has because that's all you really want." Morano punctuated that point by stating, "There is no legislation we are championing. We're the negative force. We're just trying to stop stuff" . . .


On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017)

Timothy Snyder

Chapter 10


To abandon facts is to abandon Freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.


[1] You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case. This renunciation of reality can feel natural and pleasant, but the result is your demise as an individual— and thus the collapse of any political system that depends upon individualism. As observers of totalitarianism have noted, truth dies in four modes, all of which we have just witnessed.


[2] The first mode is the open hostility to verifiable reality, which takes the form of presenting inventions and lies as if they were facts. The president does this at a high rate and at a fast pace. One attempt during the 2016 campaign to track his utterances found that 78 percent of his factual claims were false. This proportion is so high that it makes the correct assertions seem like unintended oversights on the path toward total fiction. Demeaning the world as it is begins the creation of a fictional counter-world.


[3] The second mode is shamanistic incantation. As Klemperer noted, the fascist style depends upon “endless repetition,” designed to make the fictional plausible and the criminal desirable. The systematic use of nicknames such as “Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hillary” displaced certain character traits that might more appropriately have been affixed to the president himself. Yet through blunt repetition over Twitter, our president managed the transformation of individuals into stereotypes that people then spoke aloud. At rallies, the repeated chants of “Build that wall” and “Lock her up” did not describe anything that the president had specific plans to do, but their very grandiosity established a connection between him and his audience.


[4] The third mode is magical thinking, or the embrace of contradiction. The president’s campaign promises of cutting taxes for everyone, eliminating the national debt, and increasing spending on social policy and national defense. These promises mutually contradict. As if a farmer said he were taking an egg from the henhouse, boiling it whole and serving it to his wife, and also poaching it and serving it to his children, and then returning it to the hen unbroken, and then watching as the chick hatches.


[5] Accepting untruth of this radical kind requires a blatant abandonment of reason. Klemperer’s descriptions of losing friends in Germany in 1933 over the issue of magical thinking ring eerily true today. One of his former students implored him to “abandon yourself to your feelings, and you must always focus on the Führer’s greatness, rather than on the discomfort you are feeling at present.” Twelve years later, after all the atrocities, and at the end of a war that Germany had clearly lost, an amputated soldier told Klemperer that Hitler “has never lied yet. I believe in Hitler.”


[6] The fourth mode is misplaced faith. It involves the sort of self-deifying claims the president made when he said that “I alone can solve it” or “I am your voice.” When faith descends from heaven to earth in this way, no room remains for the small truths of our individual discernment and experience. What terrified Klemperer was the way that this transition seemed permanent. Once truth had become oracular rather than factual, evidence was irrelevant. At the end of the war a worker told Klemperer that “understanding is useless, you have to have faith. I believe in the Führer.”


[7] Eugène Ionesco, the great Romanian playwright, watched one friend after another slip away into the language of fascism in the 1930s. The experience became the basis for his 1959 absurdist play, Rhinoceros, in which those who fall prey to propaganda are transformed into giant horned beasts. Of his own personal experiences Ionesco wrote:

University professors, students, intellectuals were turning Nazi, becoming Iron Guards, one after the other. At the beginning, certainly they were not Nazis. About fifteen of us would get together to talk and to try to find arguments opposing theirs. It was not easy….From time to time, one of our friends said: “I don’t agree with them, to be sure, but on certain points, nevertheless, I must admit, for example, the Jews…,” etc. And this was a symptom. Three weeks later, this person would become a Nazi. He was caught in the mechanism, he accepted everything, he became a rhinoceros. Towards the end, only three or four of us were still resisting.


[8] Ionesco’s aim was to help us see just how bizarre propaganda actually is, but how normal it seems to those who yield to it. By using the absurd image of the rhinoceros, Ionesco was trying to shock people into noticing the strangeness of what was actually happening. The rhinoceri are roaming through our neurological savannahs. We now find ourselves very much concerned with something we call “post-truth,” and we tend to think that its scorn of everyday facts and its construction of alternative realities is something new or postmodern. Yet there is little here that George Orwell did not capture seven decades ago in his notion of “doublethink.” In its philosophy, post-truth restores precisely the fascist attitude to truth— and that is why nothing in our own world would startle Klemperer or Ionesco.


[9] Fascists despised the small truths of daily existence, loved slogans that resonated like a new religion, and preferred creative myths to history or journalism. They used new media, which at the time was radio, to create a drumbeat of propaganda that aroused feelings before people had time to ascertain facts. And now, as then, many people confused faith in a hugely flawed leader with the truth about the world we all share.


Post-truth is pre-fascism.