We Are in a Post-Reality [Science-Fictional!] World

I saw (part of) the Republican debate this past week, and the responses, and saw how the obvious lies and misrepresentations did not seem to matter to the crowd; it was how the candidates played to the crowd. This seems to be the increasing trend in politics over the past decade or more. For what it’s worth, my thoughts about the current political landscape, the Republicans specifically, are echoed and amplified by this New York Times editorial — Crazy Talk at the Republican Debate

Peel back the boasting and insults, the lies and exaggerations common to any presidential campaign. What remains is a collection of assertions so untrue, so bizarre, that they form a vision as surreal as the Ronald Reagan jet looming behind the candidates’ lecterns.

It felt at times as if the speakers were no longer living in a fact-based world where actions have consequences, programs take money and money has to come from somewhere. Where basic laws — like physics and the Constitution — constrain wishes. Where Congress and the public, allies and enemies, markets and militaries don’t just do what you want them to, just because you say they will.

— And by Friday’s column by Paul Krugman, Fantasies and Fictions at G.O.P. Debate, where he makes points similar to those he’s been making for years…

You’re probably tired of hearing this, but modern G.O.P. economic discourse is completely dominated by an economic doctrine — the sovereign importance of low taxes on the rich — that has failed completely and utterly in practice over the past generation.


The real revelation on Wednesday, however, was the way some of the candidates went beyond expounding bad analysis and peddling bad history to making outright false assertions, and probably doing so knowingly, which turns those false assertions into what are technically known as “lies.”

Many were impressed by Carly Fiorina’s performance – that word, “performance”, came up time and time again in disucssions of the debates – but as many commentators have done in the past couple days, Krugman calls her out:

Some of Mrs. Fiorina’s fibs involved repeating thoroughly debunked claims about her business record. No, she didn’t preside over huge revenue growth. She made Hewlett-Packard bigger by acquiring other companies, mainly Compaq, and that acquisition was a financial disaster. Oh, and if her life is a story of going from “secretary to C.E.O.,” mine is one of going from mailman to columnist and economist. Sorry, working menial jobs while you’re in school doesn’t make your life a Horatio Alger story.

But the truly awesome moment came when she asserted that the videos being used to attack Planned Parenthood show “a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.” No, they don’t. Anti-abortion activists have claimed that such things happen, but have produced no evidence, just assertions mingled with stock footage of fetuses.

False witness, conservatives and fundamentalists? Have you no shame?

As always, I’m interested in the broader implications of how current political issues inform the way humans interpret the world, acknowledge reality, or fall back on tribal allegiances. And so I’m especially receptive to these last paragraphs of Krugman’s column:

I began writing for The Times during the 2000 election campaign, and what I remember above all from that campaign is the way the conventions of “evenhanded” reporting allowed then-candidate George W. Bush to make clearly false assertions — about his tax cuts, about Social Security — without paying any price. As I wrote at the time, if Mr. Bush said the earth was flat, we’d see headlines along the lines of “Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.”

Now we have presidential candidates who make Mr. Bush look like Abe Lincoln. But who will tell the people?

So– *why is this happening?* This trend in American politics suggests a retreat into personal reality bubbles… which is, actually, a science-fictional theme about the attraction of virtual realities, in which one can live a dream life apart from interactions with other people or the crude aspects of real life.

It seems this dream life is happening. No matter what happens in daily news, there are conservatives (and racists, casually impugning the current President) who are willing to reinterpret events, on the basis of nothing whatsoever, except their need to make things fit into their cultural narrative, in which their tribe is true and everything else is a threat or a conspiracy. So: the Texas boy with an Arabic name, arrested for building a clock? There are people out there who see this as yet another conspiracy:

Conservatives warn Ahmed Mohamed’s arrest was terrorist ‘setup’ to make Islamophobia seem racist

It seems to me that American culture is increasingly splitting into subcultures with narratives that are completely independent and resistant to evidence or rational thinking.

My very provisional hypothesis – much less than a provisional conclusion – for what has happened in the past decade or two is twofold. First of all, that the attacks on the US in 2001, and the repeated evidence that many populations around the world hate the US, were both evidence of the poisonous nature of religious belief as well as a shock to the US population, especially the jingoistic hoi poiloi who wave their flags and assume the US is the greatest nation in the history of the world because, after all, that’s where they live!—and second of all, the internet has enabled people to find like-minded others who share their tastes, their opinions, their beliefs, and their prejudices, and to filter out all others, in a way more effective than any other way in human history. Thus, to an extant more than ever, there is no longer any consensus reality, or shared cultural values.

This is a science-fictional issue! SF, at its base, is about the perception of the real world, and how assumptions about that world are overtaken by exposure to new evidence about reality. But at the same time, the persistence of humanity is more dependeant on tribal allegiances, even when that entails fantasies about reality. As seen in current politics.

Further examples:

Slate: Of Course Trump Won’t Correct Birthers: It’s called pandering, and Republicans do it on everything from climate change to the debt ceiling.

Salon: The GOP’s bullsh*t campaign: Why they’re drowning the country in an ocean of lies

New York Times, Gail Collins: The Fight for Unplanned Parenthood

Alternet: The GOP’s Debate’s Terrifying Alternate Reality: Inside the Political Delusions of a Party On the Edge

The New Yorker: Trump and the Man in the T-Shirt

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