суббота, 11 марта 2017 г.

Vox populi vox Dei? (on populism)

I am not an expert. I really mean that. So the authority of what I say - here or anywhere - is entirely subject to the quality of my sources (and my reading of them) and to the validity (or otherwise) of my reasoning.

One of the phenomena of our time is populism. The word is not new and so nor is the phenomenon, but it is manifesting itself in a new way in our time. A lot has been said and written about populism in politics. Whatever you think about Brexit and Trump, they do have in common the fact that they represent a victory of a form of popular will over political elites - and that is certainly how they portrayed their campaign and subsequent victory. Michael Gove famously retorted, "I think people in this country have had enough of experts." To many this seemed to be tantamount to the famous adage, "I have made up my mind, don't confuse me with the facts."

Facts. What are the facts? And what are the 'alternative facts'? The latter is yet another term coined in this new context. Not only is there the issue of 'fake news', but even non-fake news and facts may be marshalled in support of this or that cause - and thus distorted or manipulated. There is a subjectivity to any interpretation of facts, although surely this cannot mean that anything can be true and therefore everything comes down to an a priori decision of who is right. Populism is not about doing away with elites, but - as is so often the case with a revolution - replacing one elite with another. The experts are being replaced with intuitive, post-truth leaders. (In 1920s and 30s Italy the motto was, "Mussolini is always right")

Populism is of course not simply the will of the people. Very often the people don't have a settled view. However they may be won over to a view by fair means and foul and then used en masse to drive through that view in the arena of public opinion and democratic process. The issue is not the populus (the people), but the populist - not the unwieldy vessel, but the rudder guiding its direction. And, at the present time, more moderate or liberal voices - who themselves have not always played by the rules - find themselves helpless in the face of ruthless manipulation of information and shaping of public opinion.

Is there a way out? Is there hope? I think there are two things which offer hope in this situation.

The first of these is the resilience of truth. Many of us have spent decades bemoaning postmodernism and its nihilistic subjectivity. Postmodernism may well be self-destructing with post-truth. Truth management - especially via the mass media - is indeed powerful and may indeed prop up this or that populism, but it has an achilles heel. The truth will out. As Abraham Lincoln may have said, "You cannot fool all the people all the time." And that is especially true when it comes to the past. Perhaps nothing is more precious in this environment than memory and the past. What happened, happened. And past records - including tax records - give a window into what is really going on. Historiography can be rewritten by the victors of by whoever, but the events themselves are unchangeable, stubbornly objective and - sooner or later - they will be proclaimed from the housetops.

The second glimmer of hope is what I shall call the lone voice. The courage of the individual to stand against the tide and to hold on to what they know is true - even if seems implausible, unpalatable, even unacceptable to all around. Bonhoeffer. Solzhenitsyn. Las Casas. And many others. 

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