In a Politico article published last month, Jason Schwartz asserts:
Authoritarian rulers across the globe are adopting President Donald Trump’s favorite phrase to limit free speech, with prominent leaders or state media in at least 15 countries using his “fake news” line to denounce their critics, according to a Politico review.
I’m not one to take anything I read at Politico (or anywhere else, these days) at face value. But Mr. Schwarz does a reasonable job of substantiating his assertion with pertinent examples.
Of course, readers familiar with my thinking know that his observation about the tyrannical abuse of the “fake news” mantra tracks with my expectations. In two articles I wrote last February (“Does thetTerm ‘fake news’ intentionally misdirect attention?” and “The ‘fake news’ furor, what’s the use?”) I foresaw the danger to liberty:
If we are content to be cozened by skillful deceptions, which engage our passions and flatter our factious self-conceits, then deception will become – it is becoming – the rule for our way of life. It will be embodied in rulers who represent its lawless ways. Lawless rule easily recruits its strength by way of deception, especially when used to exacerbate fear and loathing. The alliance of deceit and fear deepens threatening shadows, so that the pretended requirements of survival can be evoked to excuse a general disregard for right and rights.
My concern was not solely about how tyrannical governments would abuse the “fake news” epithet.
Because it was spawned in the contest of a political process in the United States now dominated by the machinations of an elitist faction, I observed that “As a weapon of factional warfare, the ‘fake news’ charge may be irresistibly useful.” Now comes the report that “French President Emmanuel Macron will propose new rules cracking down on fake news during elections this year.” The report has him saying, “When fake news are [sic] spread, it will be possible to go to a judge … and if appropriate have content taken down, user accounts deleted and ultimately websites blocked.”
France is counted among the leading constitutional democracies of Europe. But its legal code includes elements of the Napoleonic Code, identified with a military hero of the French Revolution who is also reproached for presiding over one of the first modern examples of a thoroughgoing “police state.” Why should we assume that laws invoking such a subjectively protean concept as “fake news” won’t be abused by elected official to stifle criticism adverse to their political prospects? Already on America’s campuses, views are being pre-emptively forbidden because some ideologically fanatical clique finds them disagreeable. Won’t generations accustomed to acquiescing in such censorship forget the logic of free speech that sees sharply disagreeable speech as a necessary catalyst when testing to distinguish truth from falsehood?
In ordinary parlance the opposite of “fake” is “authentic,” a word that cannot apply even to a true copy of some original work, because of its provenance. In political terms, this could easily be made into a factional distinction – with people who support some popular party or individual deciding that they are the only authentic source of information. Thus, lurking behind the “fake news” mantra is the same “party line,” “words of the exalted leader” mentality used to justify repression in all the totalitarian party/factional/individual dictatorships from the 19th century up to the present day. In terms of speech, “authenticity” is a matter of prevailing force (be it of arms, political passions, or votes) not empirical or logical truth. It’s tempting to believe that this makes no difference to societies in which elections, inevitably prey to subjective forces, play a decisive part.
But friends of democratic, constitutional self-government should take pains to ponder the wisdom of the leading lights of the generation of Americans that founded the United States. They appreciated the fact that democratic elections are prone to degenerate into contests of mindless force, regardless of true facts, or true premises for what is right and justice. So that just government may prevail, on a democratic basis, the character of the people must be informed by their good will; and that will must be informed by conscientious respect for truth, regardless of its provenance, but not without regard for factual standards of common-sense experience, applied by means of reasonable discourse and argumentation.
Unless immediate violence is apprehended, such means should not be subject, by law, to pre-emptive interference from the judiciary or the executive branch of government. Madison aptly described the frequently deleterious reciprocity with which opinion and passion nourish or envenom one another. Precisely because all rational methods are fallible, no claim of right opinion, however passionate can, by itself, be justified. Opposable arguments are as essential to grasp reasoning as opposable thumbs are to grasp other tools vital to human productivity.
Any pretext that precludes such arguments reduces argument to a closed fist, useful only for repeatedly pounding opponents into submission. Such bullying portends the triumph of brutal force over every pretense of right and justice, no matter whether it is the first resort of military conquerors or the last resort of a people roused by angry or desperate passion to unite against some real or fancied oppression. Such spasmodic unity is no basis for sustained liberty. It’s momentary triumph is not sufficient to secure self-government.
Insofar as the “fake news” mantra accustoms the people to rely on the passionate force of prejudiced opinion – engendered by partisanship, personal enthusiasm or any other reflex of unmindful passion – it is a danger to stable, enduring self-government. When right and rights become simply a matter of passionate taste and feeling, only forceful action or reaction will suffice as proof of authenticity. Self-government must then give way to battle, in which truth is reckoned by victory or defeat, regardless of any other standard of veracity or goodness.
But doesn’t this mean that cold calculation trumps common sense as the premise for contesting every outcome? For unless it is the conscious aim of their character formation, only briefly and infrequently does a common sense of passion unite people, if they are facing clever opponents, armed with powers they deliberately deploy to divide susceptible individuals – with alluring bribes or fearsome intimidation. The real friends of democratic self-government will therefore be more concerned with the formation of the people’s good character than they are with dictating the character of the information used to manipulate and exploit them, while letting that the real bulwark of their liberty fall into ruin.