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The Death Of Truth

The Death Of Truth

The Oxford Dictionaries chose the word “Post-truth” as the word of year in 2016, right before the US election. They noticed that ‘objective facts’ today influence public opinion less than ‘emotion’ and subjective belief. When governments appeal to sentiments and unrealities, it is propaganda. It opens the door to fascism. Yale philosopher Jason Stanley shows how fascist politics hastily identify enemies, appeal to an “in-group,” crush the truth and replace it with power. Contention today is between Truth and Power.

Trump says, he is powerful enough to say what he says.  “I am the President, you are not.” The boss then ‘creates’ reality. Shivraj Singh Chouhan says, there is none like Modiji. Some hold him as an Avatar. Modiji can never be wrong. He creates the Truth.  Michiko Kakutani in his “Death of Truth” (Tim Duggan Books, New York, 2018) quotes Washington Post which estimated that Trump in his first year in office made at least 2,140 false or misleading claims (Kakutani 13). Post-truth is ‘alternative facts,’ clear deceptions. Lee McIntyre, quoting Washington Post again, calculates that the lies that Trump has uttered by now have gone up to 6,420, a 30% increase a day! One sits back dumbfounded. Remember Francisco de Goya’s masterpiece “Truth Has Died.”

The World of Falsehood Expands

Home Minister Rajnath Singh says Acche din have come, that they are already here, with rupee value falling, farmers rioting, jobless youth frustrated, women in danger, small scale business hard hit, infant mortality soaring. Is there truth in the Home Minister’s statement?

Hannah Arendt describes in her ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’ the ideal subjects of totalitarianism:  “People for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false no longer exist” (Kakutani 11), and where hatred dominates. Radical nationalism and the hatred of others are on the rise again as people keep losing the sense of ‘shared reality’ and the ability to communicate across social and sectarian lines (Ibid 12). Emmanuel Macron made a clear distinction between nationalism and patriotism, even as Trump listened. Hindutva activists divide Indian society into two: pro-Hindu and anti-Hindu. There is no space in between. Arendt in her essay ‘Lying in Politics,’ speaks of reason being displaced by emotion, facts being “torn to shreds by organized lying groups” or classes (Ibid 13). This is what happens in BJP India.

Religion is about Relationship, not Possessiveness

Adityanath Yogi holds out Hindu “anger” as a threat against anyone who would oppose a Ram temple over Babri Masjid. Location of Ram’s birthplace is by ‘faith,’ not by historical research. Everyone respects a neighbour’s faith when it is about his/her personal devotions. When it teaches dharma, tyaga, satya, daan, kshama, nishkama karma, everyone is edified.  But if a believer makes a claim on his neighbour’s property based on his faith, a dispute is bound to rise. Such an ‘interfering faith’ will necessarily call for an arbitrator. True faith cannot lead one in the covetous direction; and if it does, a judicial intervention is necessary. That is where we are as of today. We wait respectfully for the SC verdict. True religious faith has great concern for others. But, if what dominate are insensitivity and unconcern, the ‘authenticity’ of that faith needs to be questioned. Apparently, there is no truth there.

Ill-informed Strategies Lead to Disasters

There are times when it may be humiliating to admit the truth. But the truth is worth telling. Let us take an example.  Gen Joseph Dunford admitted recently that the “Taliban are not losing” in Afghanistan. The fact is that they are winning.  It may be difficult to admit that the Americans are losing, as they did in Vietnam.  But in truth, the Afghanistan government controls only 56% of the country, having lost a considerable amount of space to Taliban of late. But the official position is ‘qualified-truth.’

Certainly, ill-informed strategies have consequences. The former acting Attorney General of the US Sally Yates insists that political  debates must be based on studied facts, not “raw appeals to emotion and fear through polarizing rhetoric and fabrications” (Ibid 19). Trump, on the contrary, acts on instinct in an erratic and impulsive manner, what guides him is not knowledge but whim (Ibid 28).

The trend was already in that direction in the US. Jacoby’s ‘The Age of American Unreason’ and Al Gore’s ‘The Assault on Reason’ spoke about an ill-informed electorate, campaigns dominated by money, media manipulation...and in consequence, the declining role of rational discourse and fact-based policy. These led to disastrous consequences. For example, the Iraq war was a singular case of un-reflected decision (Ibid 30-31). It gave birth to ISIS, and has meant a disaster for the Iraqis as well (Ibid 33).  Modiji’s personal decisions about demonetization and GST have been criticized for similar reasons.

Leading People to Ignorance

Mahatma Gandhi and other Founding Fathers moved to the villages and educated the masses on core issues, they cultivated inter-community relationships. Today’s ‘Karyakartas’ lead illiterate masses along the path of obscurantism and cow vigilantism, polarize communities along lines of caste and religion, and plant anger into the hearts of volatile mobs. Blind obscurantism points to untruth. Tom Nichols wrote in ‘The Death of Expertise,’ “If citizens do no bother to gain basic literacy in the issues that affect their lives, they abdicate their control over those issues whether they like it or not. And when voters lose control of these important decisions, they risk the hijacking of their democracy by ignorant demagogues, or the quiet and gradual decay of their democratic institutions into authoritarian technocracy” (Ibid 35). Too late do they wake up to find themselves enslaved.

Those who would like to mislead others, adopt a ‘pedagogy of deceit.’ Stefan Zweig shows how the Nazis hid their aims at the early stages. They passed on small doses of falsehood at a time, just one pill to begin with (Ibid 42). Gertrude Himmelfarb had warned that the writing and teaching of history was becoming politicized (Ibid 53). Deborah E. Lipstadt lamented, “Any truth can be retold. Any fact can be recast. There is no ultimate historical reality (Ibid 56). George Orwell described the situation in this manner “If the leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’—well, it never happened” (Ibid 55), the battle of Panipat or Plassey, the victory of Muslim rulers or the Black Hole Tragedy. Thus history is continuously rewritten (Ibid 97). But ultimately, ‘ Satyameva Jayate’.

Unconcern for the Poor

Narendra Modi called the 3000-crore statue of Vallabhbhai Patel that he erected in Gujarat the “Stature of Unity,” the pride of India. We congratulate him for the symbol. But does it reflect the ground reality in Gujarat where the Muslims have been driven to ghettoes and the wounds of communal riots are not healed?  Is he making a ‘partisan’ use of the image of a national hero who truly stood for India’s unity? Is the statue-making venture (of Ram in UP, of Shivaji in Maharashtra) taking away food from the mouths of tribal children, 42% of whom are under-nourished?

Just pretending that a problem does not exist is homage paid to untruth. Tribal people are being displaced on a gigantic scale and marginalised. The Arunachal PCC vice president Minkir Lollen alleged that 22 tribal villages and 75,000 people were affected by this Patel project that flattered the ego of high caste Gujaratis; that it is a symbol of division along caste, community and religion. Local protesters against it were arrested. Yes, the truth needs to be told.

Renaming Places Following the Law of ‘Exclusion’

What is more shocking is the fury with which cities are being renamed in BJP led states. Om Prakash Rajbhar, who represents the backward classes, says, renaming places is a diversionary tactic. It is saffronisation of non-saffron India, e.g. changing Mughalsarai into Deen Dayal. It is forgetting a part of our collective self-hood. It is renouncing a significant part of our heritage. It is proclaiming untruth about our common history. It stands for the very opposite of what is promised by the slogan ‘sab ke sath, sab ka vikas.’ Of course, under the reign of untruth, promises are not to be kept. They are meant to distract and deceive. Rahul says, false promises kill trust. There is where we have reached.

When the ‘heavens’ are promised during the elections, no intelligent man takes it seriously. The BJP promises good roads in Mizoram while the roads in the other BJP-ruled states in the region have reached abominable conditions. Modiji promised 2 crore jobs; frustrated youth are frantically in search of jobs. We are in fact heading for ‘jobless growth,’ with GDP growing and crorepatis multiplying.  We are moving towards a ‘corruption free’ society through the purchase of cheap MLAs and MPs.  Shockingly there are many! We are busy with nation-building based on fake data about India’s impressive progress, the sturdiness of Hindu power, and the revival of ancient glory. A BBC research team was taken aback when they saw that such ‘fake’ information was winning acceptability without verification. Truth alone will set us free.

Hypernationalism

Hypernationalism widens the gaps between communities, as it lacks objectivity. For example Hindutva ultra-nationalism seems to be taking Kashmir to a stage of ‘no return.’ We cannot boast of being the greatest democracy in the world when only 4% in Kashmir Valley turned out to vote. Election under the shadow of the gun does no honour to the quality of our democracy. Those who tell the truth about these matters are called anti-national.

Similarly, those who tell the truth against the dictatorial powers that are being exercised against the Central Indian tribals are called ‘Urban Maoists.’ Modi accuses these intellectuals of travelling in AC cars and of having their children studying abroad...while ruining the lives of the poor tribals. If this be true, why is he blind to the fact that many high-level sponsors of cow vigilantism and moral policing have their children in Harvard and Stanford, that it is their ‘provocative and insensitive’ speeches that have led  to most of recent violence in India? When truth remains untold, the world slips towards untruth. Who will tell the Hindutva intellectuals that cow-fervour in Indian politics appears to global observers very much like blasphemy law in Pakistan? Could they develop a face-saving formula, to say the least?

May Peace Reign in Mahatma’s Land

What recently happened at the Dharma Sabha in Ayodhya was what the Nazis did as they were gaining strength: they “weaponized language” which suppresses critical thinking, inflame bigotry, hijack a democracy...with a million repetitions. Hitler appealed directly to the people, as Modi does through his Mann ki baat (Ibid 91), amidst “banners, parades, garlands, fanfares and choruses” (Ibid 92). The Godmen seem to claim to be the final authority on Ram Temple decision, not the Constitution nor the judiciary. They were not speaking about Yoga or Shanti. Their words were closer to the Orwellian formulae, “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength” (Ibid 94). They shouted, “Naam mita do Babar ka!” (Wipe out the name of Babar.) They threatened war against the Muslims, unless they yielded.

In actual fact, ordinary people in Ayodhya are more concerned with ‘kam’ than ‘Ram;’ they want to live in peace. But the Sadhus are determined to make the common ground between communities shrink, and consensus impossible. They are past masters at the Trumpian trick of tapping “into the anger of others.” During the election Trump had screamed, “Lock Her Up, Build a Wall” (Ibid 126). 

In this respect, what Robert Heinlein says is true: “You can sway a thousand men by appealing to their prejudices quicker than you can convince one man by logic” (Ibid 135), just weaponize your language. It is said that Lenin was exceptionally skilled in using incendiary language “calculated to evoke hatred, aversion and contempt”…not to convince, but to destroy the opponent, and evoke the worst thoughts and worst suspicions (Ibid 136). Neo-Bolsheviks too believe that “in a rotten world, truth can be sacrificed in the name of ‘the people,’”  against the ‘enemies’ of the people (Ibid 137). After all, “The ends justified the means” (Ibid 139).

Trump wrote in his  book ‘Think Big,’ “The world is a brutal place. People will annihilate you just for the fun of it or show off to their friends (Ibid 153). Such feelings are taking over the world: loss of faith in people, in institutions, rule of law, everyday norms and traditions, loss of civility, growing inability to have respectful debates with people who hold other views, unwillingness to concede the benefit of doubt, courtesy of hearing (Ibid 155). The Trump era word is ‘weaponize’: use irony, fear, lies (Ibid 157). A bully’s effort is to “intimidate...polarize and scapegoat” (Ibid 98). Is the Mahatama’s India moving in that direction too? Will the land Yajnavalkya and Gargi remain open for free discussions? Will the philosophy of Peace taught by Buddha find a home South of the Himalayas? Will the motto “Satyam Eva Jayate” sound hollow in this land of the Sages?

(Published on 03rd December 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 49)