[This article continues reflections begun earlier this week in an article at barbwire.com]
Part of the problem with the term “fake news” has to do with the debatable meaning of “news” itself. President Trump hears someone on a TV show talking about the rise in crime and violence associated with Sweden’s admission of Muslim immigrants. In a speech the following day, he treated it as a “news” report. He put it in the context of terrorist events elsewhere in Europe, thus giving the impression that some such event had taken place recently in Sweden. But nothing of the kind has been reported. The show President Trump saw featured a guest who decried what he views as the catastrophic consequences, over time, of Sweden’s excessively permissive immigration/refugee policies.
Was Mr. Trump’s alarmist speech “fake news”? Was the report he saw “fake news”? With respect to the dangers involved in permissive immigration/refugee policies, was it news at all? As a weapon of factional warfare, the “fake news” charge may be irresistibly useful. But in practice, it prejudices the reception of information in a way calculated to heighten public fear, suspicion and anxiety, whether facts warrant it or not. This in turn inclines people to give way to their prejudices, even when dispassionate reflection would advise against it.
The French political thinker Montesquieu (held in high esteem by America’s founders) accurately observes that fear is the key resource of tyrants, and/or those seeking to maintain tyranny. By contrast he defines liberty, (which is, with equal justice, the common good of governments of, by and for the people) as the ability to live without fear. In this respect, the whole idea of “fake news” creates and deploys weapons of factional destruction that have little to do with the common good of the American people. What we need is accurate information, regardless of its purported inauthenticity, but never regardless of its truth.
But as a people, how are we to discern what truly serves to inform us, and what does not? It is partly a matter of accurate fact, collected and analyzed with the objectively calculating eye that is supposed to characterize our empirical science. But the same facts, differently construed, can lead to the construction of a nuclear reactor, providing useful energy to improve human lives; or a nuclear weapon that massively destroys them. Facts are what they are. But human actions and activities are also what we intend them to be, for good or ill.
In this respect, we Americans suffer from the fact that we are every day becoming less and less capable, (and therefore, also, less inclined,) to apply the wisdom of our founders to the governance of our life as a free people. So, we neglect the purpose of the “separation of powers” they insisted upon in the Constitution. Thanks to the concept of separation, we can demand in our courts of law, what we expect from our science, i.e., a scrupulous observance of fact, as though it were a requirement of the law. Similarly, our free society requires a branch of the citizenry (i.e., an aspect of the mind of the sovereign) dedicated to accurately observing and reporting matters of fact. In this information media, issues should not be distorted by tendentious battles over whether reports are “fake”. It should be focused on whether they are factual, with the assumption that the distortion, omission or falsification of facts is simply never justified. If and when it occurs, it should always be made known and truthfully taken into account.
In not a few instances, that accounting will involve governmental, political and/or corporate powers. People who take it as their vocation to collect and disseminate information should see such factual accountability as a strict rule of their profession, in obedience to which they put aside all contrary considerations. This entirely defies the ideological demands now being made by almost all those corporations, parties, politicians and government officials who are presently bent on turning our national life into a virtual civil war. But it is the most critical contribution the information media can make to mitigating and curtailing that war before it virtually destroys our existence as a free people.
This is not just a challenge for people in the information media. It is a challenge to the whole citizen body. 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.
If we Americans can rediscover the character required to adjure opinions vetted by factious passions, and base our judgments instead on severely vetted truth, the self-confidence this restores will be worth more than the strong defenses it encourages us to reinvigorate. But how will this be possible while the standard we use to judge events has no anchor but in the events themselves, which are constantly in flux?
“Fake news” is not the root of our present crisis as a people. It derives rather from “fake principles” and groundless ideologies derived from them. These are the forgeries that falsely claim the authority of empirical science, and the wonders of its power; and yet deny the very idea of authorship, which distinguishes those miracles from a run of good luck at the gambling tables. Instead of the pipedream of returning to some rhetorical state of “greatness”, we will do better by returning to the standard of truth that relies on the authority of our Creator, God. When we see ourselves again as people determined to make good our commitment to His standard of truth and right and justice, we will rediscover the rubric that truly distinguishes what is fake from what is real. It is not founded in or aimed at our own greatness, but in the greater glory of God’s truth and good will.