As problematic as “fake news” is, and as dangerous as the label can be, maybe “true news” is equally corrosive. The contemporary world is giving us more reality and more truth than we can comfortably handle — and that, as much as the lack of a common enemy since the end of the Cold War, may explain the decline of the liberal world order that I lamented in a recent column.
Fake news, after all, has been with us for a long time, whether in the form of overly optimistic dispatches from the Vietnam War or reports of Paul McCartney’s death. And that’s not counting the under- or unreported stories we now know to be true, on such things as Kennedy’s affairs, Johnson’s corruption or Reagan’s dementia.
Back then, you couldn’t even Google the right answer — yet somehow we coped. What we did have, at least in America and most of the West, was a relatively well-centered culture, rich in the humanities, which gave people perspective and a series of unifying national “myths.” Even if America never was quite the land of the free and the home of the brave, it helped that most people believed it was.
Fast forward to the current day. Probably the single biggest change in American life has been a dramatic decline in the cost and inconvenience of getting information. On just about every topic, it is possible to get access to virtually every possible point of view, usually at zero marginal cost.
And the truest, biggest news concerns the failings of our elites. I am not referring just to US elites. Whatever specific failings they may have, there is a more general problem with elites: They are held responsible for the success or failure of the larger society. This is not always fair, because business cycles are hard to forecast or prevent, foreign affairs do not always go well, and bad luck can scuttle the best of plans. But today’s elite no longer have the cultural shield that once made it harder for outsiders to take a crack at them, however good or bad you may consider those elites to be.
The world of the internet — fundamentally a world of information — is reporting on the failures of the elites 24/7. And while pretty much every opinion is available, some have more resonance than others. Is it not the case that, post-2008, most people really are skeptical of the ability of American elites to prevent the next financial crisis? Going even further back, I recall the optimism surrounding the Mideast peace talks of the 1970s or the Oslo accords of the 1990s. Hardly anyone honest has the same positive feelings about today’s efforts at peace talks.
Again, these impressions are based on actual information. An informed populace, however, can also be a cynical populace, and a cynical populace is willing to tolerate or maybe even support cynical leaders. The world might be better off with more of that naïve “moonshot” optimism of the 1960s.
There is another way that this surfeit of information harms the reputation of elites. Say you discover Brilliant Person X and want more exposure to X’s brilliant ideas, to improve your knowledge and understanding of the world. So you decide to follow X on Twitter — and discover that X is not, in fact, impressive in every respect, and perhaps harbors some partisan prejudices too. It’s not quite that you have discovered that the emperor has no clothes. But perhaps you have noticed that he (or she) is missing a few critical garments.
As virtually everyone is unmasked, journalists move along the same cynical path. Through social media, they learn what readers really think of their work, and sometimes find it “glib, disingenuous, mocking, cruel, pedantic, self-righteous, [and] derogatory.” It’s hard to stay idealistic these days, as information indeed is the enemy of idealism.
Instead of today’s swamp of negativism, do you not instead long for a few rousing hymns, a teary rom-com happy ending, a non-ironic exhibit of wonderful American landscape paintings? Yet all these cultural forms are largely on the wane.
If you doubt that truth itself is the problem, just ask yourself: How much would it demoralize you to read the truth about yourself, all day long? Even if most (but not all) of those reports were positive? Pretty demoralizing, I’d bet. That, in a nutshell, is the predicament of the West.
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