Fact-checking is a feeble response in a world where what we think we see and know is more important than the actual truth.
By Jim Miller
Donald Trump’s continued attacks on the American news media as “the enemy of the American people” have generated quite a stir in mainstream media circles as one might expect. And surely there is good reason to be disturbed by this administration’s punitive stance towards the press.
But what virtually none of the analysis of Trump’s attacks on “fake news” or Steve Bannon’s assaults on what he calls “the corporatist global media,” which both he and the president label “the opposition,” note is the irony that while the new regime is attacking the power of the corporate media, they are also busy installing corporatists in nearly every position of power and pushing an agenda that is every right-wing billionaire’s wet dream.
Thus the frenzied debate about the veracity of Trump’s statements misses the larger, more important story about how the new administration and the Republicans in Congress who are happy to tolerate his transgressions are doing everything they can to firmly entrench an authoritarian plutocracy.
So, like the neoliberal Democratic presidential campaign that sought to focus on Trump as an aberrant figure rather than attacking his and the entire Republican party’s agenda for fear of exposing Clinton’s own contradictions, the corporate media’s coverage of Trump also fails to see the bigger picture because its frame of reference is and has always been too narrow to adequately expose how the economic power structure, of which it is a part, functions.
That’s how Trump gets away with murder. It’s why he is able to strike an economic populist pose so laughably absurd on its face that it boggles the mind that THAT is not the headline story every day. Trump knows he’s full of shit, but he can divert people’s attention because he understands that they know that many of his opponents and the media are also full of shit. It’s a crude but effective scam.
While it is tempting here to revisit some of my earlier columns on Chomsky and Herman’s propaganda model and Project Censored’s fine work exposing how the corporate media consistently underreports key issues such as our crisis level of economic inequality and the mortal threat of climate change, even that might not delve deep enough to really get to the crux of the matter.
For that, I’ll turn to perhaps the most insightful piece of writing that has slipped through the filters of the mainstream press in recent weeks. In a remarkable New York Times column, “Trump and the ‘Society of the Spectacle,’” Robert Zaretsky revisits Guy Debord’s Situationist treatise in search of answers for how we have arrived at the strange place that is our present historical moment:
“The Society of the Spectacle” is still relevant today. With its descriptions of human social life subsumed by technology and images, it is often cited as a prophecy of the dangers of the internet age now upon us. And perhaps more than any other 20th-century philosophical work, it captures the profoundly odd moment we are now living through, under the presidential reign of Donald Trump.
Zaretsky outlines Debord’s contention that in spectacular societies, “The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.” And, as Debord notes, the spectacle is “capital accumulated until it becomes an image” and social relations in a culture dominated by the spectacle are, at base, social relationships mediated by images. Hence, like the prisoners in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” we live in a world where what we think we see and know is more important than the actual truth.
This is not a comforting notion but, as Zaretsky puts it:
With the presidency of Donald Trump, the Debordian analysis of modern life resonates more deeply and darkly than perhaps even its creator thought possible, anticipating, in so many ways, the frantic and fantastical, nihilistic and numbing nature of our newly installed government. In Debord’s notions of “unanswerable lies,” when “truth has almost everywhere ceased to exist or, at best, has been reduced to pure hypothesis,” and the “outlawing of history,” when knowledge of the past has been submerged under “the ceaseless circulation of information, always returning to the same list of trivialities,” we find keys to the rise of trutherism as well as Trumpism.
In his later work, “Comments on the Society of the Spectacle,” published almost 20 years after the original, Debord seemed to foresee the spectacular process that commenced on Jan. 20. “The spectacle proves its arguments,” he wrote, “simply by going round in circles: by coming back to the start, by repetition, by constant reaffirmation in the only space left where anything can be publicly affirmed …. Spectacular power can similarly deny whatever it likes, once or three times over, and change the subject, knowing full well there is no danger of any riposte.” After Trump’s inauguration, the actual size of the audience quickly ceased to matter. The battle over images of the crowd, snapped from above or at ground level, simply fueled our collective case of delirium tremens.
Since then, as each new day brings a new scandal, lie or outrage, it has become increasingly difficult to find our epistemological and ethical bearings: The spectacle swallows us all. It goes on, Debord observed, “to talk about something else, and it is that which henceforth, in short, exists. The practical consequences, as we see, are enormous.” Indeed. Who among us recalls the many lies told by Trump on the campaign trail? Who can re-experience the shock felt when first seeing or hearing the “Access Hollywood” tape? Who can separate the real Trump from the countless parodies of Trump and the real dangers from the mere idiocies? Who remembers the Russians when our own Customs and Border officials are coming for our visas?
In the face of this reality, fact-checking is a feeble response. As long as we remain “addicted consumers of spectacular images” we’ll be prisoners of our own passivity. We need to become actors in the drama of our own lives rather than rubes waiting for the circus to come to town. Zaretsky evokes May ‘68 as a precedent, but mimicking anything would be a mistake.
We must own our own time.