Last Updated on March 3, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1103
Snyder observes that according to the German Romance language scholar Victor Klemperer, the value of truth in a society is denigrated or killed by four ways or “modes.” The first is “open hostility to verifiable reality,” which is often achieved by presenting “inventions and lies as if they were facts.” According to Snyder, President Trump employs this strategy; indeed, one attempt to track his statements during the 2016 campaign speculated that seventy-eight percent of his claims may be false.
The second mode is what Snyder terms “shamanistic incantation” and what Klemperer terms “endless repetition.” The idea is that if a lie is repeated often enough, it starts gaining the aura of a truth. For instance, Trump’s repeated assertion of “build that wall” did not describe any specific plan, yet it aggrandized an image of the president for his supporters as a dynamic defender of America.
Magical thinking, or “the open embrace of contradiction,” is the third mode by which truth is devalued. In this mode, reason is abandoned and people start believing mutually contradicting statements, such as the president’s simultaneous promises of cutting taxes for everyone and increasing spending in various sectors.
Closely linked with this jettisoning of reason is Klemperer’s final mode of denying truth: misplaced faith. Authoritarian regimes gain legitimacy because people start putting uncritical faith in tyrants, believing their promises of being the only one who can solve a problem. Some Germans held onto this faith even after the end of the Second World War, with one soldier Klemperer met stating that “understanding is useless, you have to have faith. I believe in the Führer.” In Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco’s famous absurdist play Rhinoceros, those who start believing in propaganda are transformed into giant, horned creatures. Through the play, Ionesco wanted to show how bizarre propaganda is from an objective standpoint but how normal it seems to its believers. What seems grotesque in retrospective seemed natural to its adherents in the moment. Stating that “post-truth is pre-fascism,” Snyder emphasizes that an insistence on truth is critical to saving modern democracies in the age of social media.
Investigation is the antidote to the denigration of truth, observes Snyder in his eleventh lesson. To resist the propaganda of tyrants, citizens should ask questions and promote long-form investigative print journalism. Tyrants like Trump dislike intelligent journalism and attempt to silence it by spreading the idea that critical media is “unbelievably dishonest” and eliciting a public hatred for honest journalists. According to Snyder, Nazis’ tendency to call critical coverage lugenpresse, or lying press, is akin to Trump’s tendency to call such coverage “fake news.” The conscious citizen should therefore recognize and defend critical voices. Political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s argument that the truth will always prevail may have been true in 1971 when it was written, the same is not true in contemporary post-truth times, when the Internet can be used to pass off misinformation as truth. In contemporary times, longform journalism, instead of news bytes on screens, is what can help people separate truth from rumors and misinformation.
Print journalism is different from television because it involves legwork. It demands that reporters go out into the field, meet subjects, and gather and verify facts before presenting them to the public. Unlike the “two-dimensional” world of television reports and digital news, the world of print journalism deals with “three-dimensional” human contact and assembles reflective narratives that put political realities into perspective. On the other hand, the very nature of screens draws politics into the “logic of spectacles,” encouraging viewers to fixate on scandals and explosive headlines rather than evolving stories. Under this logic, politicians need not be fair or honest; it is enough for them to behave like players on a reality show.
In order to promote the truth, people must support and fund quality investigative journalism, rather than getting their news through dubious channels for free. Since contemporary people have the luxury of the Internet, where information can be exchanged easily, they must use it wisely to share verifiable information. Scholars like Leszek Kolakowski and Hannah Arendt, whom Snyder often cites in this book, did not have “the enviable power” of the Internet and struggled to publish and disseminate their radical writing. Therefore, citizens must harness the potential of the Internet and share quality journalism after thorough fact-checking.
Making eye contact and smiling is not merely being polite—it is an act of responsibility towards society. Human contact enables citizens to “break down social barriers” and recognize the perspectives of those with different experiences. Snyder states that basic human courtesies and kindnesses took on great significance during the tyrannical regimes of the twentieth century. Survivors of these regimes recall finding solace and solidarity in chance smiles, handshakes, and greetings. When friends avoided them, their feelings of fear and alienation grew. Those few people who survived dark periods like Nazi Germany tended to know people whom they could trust. Therefore, to offer hope to fellow citizens who may be feeling oppressed or alienated, people must build human networks and offer support. As Snyder states,
Having old friends is the politics of last resort. And making new ones is the first step towards change.
Snyder analyzes the tyrant’s hatred of verifiable facts. The tyrant hates the truth because the truth defies the particular agenda and worldview upon which tyranny is built. Authoritarian leaders also dislike truth because it is democratic and belongs to everyone, whereas they want to be the sole authority from where truth originates. Therefore, the tyrant wants to devalue the very concept of truth. In a post-truth society, accountability disappears. For instance, a tyrant can promise people fewer taxes and increased spending on education and ultimately deliver nothing. Since the truth does not matter, neither does the promise of the politician.
Snyder is essentially describing an immoral or unethical world. In the absence of ethics, power becomes the only moral compass. The powerful are always right. What’s frightening is that this worldview, seemingly out of a dystopian classic, is an ever-present threat in a democracy. To underscore the possible lapse into dystopia, Snyder refers to dystopian and surreal classics throughout the text, whether it is George Orwell’s 1984 in chapter 9 or Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros in chapter 10. By juxtaposing the absurd and the extreme with descriptions of real events from history, Snyder highlights how reality itself can easily turn absurd if tyranny is allowed to go unchecked. Therefore, in a post-truth world, people must chase the whole, narrative truth rather than fixate on snippets. Patience and attention are the enemy of untruth.
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