Having been a skeptical student of ‘conspiracy theories’ for many years – arising out of my work on Britain’s secret services – I thought I could distinguish ‘true’ from ‘false’ news fairly easily. But it really is becoming more difficult nowadays. The problem arises with stories that you would like to believe, because of your political (or other) predilections, and which genuinely could be true in view of what else you know about the person or people targeted. Usually that will immediately rule out the craziest rumours swilling about – Hillary Clinton involved in child pornography, for example, or Obama’s Kenyan nationality; but then along comes a person who is crazy (in the loosest meaning of the term; I’m not claiming, yet, that Trump is certifiable), and the bounds of possibility immensely broaden out.
Take the following: a report that the Trump organization erected a fence around a cottage abutting on one of his Scottish golf courses (the owner refused to sell it to him), and then sent the owner the bill, à la Mexico: surely this can’t be true? It’s just the sort of thing a satirist might make up, in line with all those other glorious anti-Trump jokes circulating around the internet just now; and for those of us most distressed by the result of the American election, making Trump’s victory almost bearable – a bit like Low’s Hitler cartoons in the 1930s. It resembles one of those myths that expresses an even deeper truth than the literal truth: like Peter Mandelson being taken into a fish and chip shop and asking for ‘some of that lovely-looking guacamole, please’. (I.e., for non-Brits, really mushy peas.) But the ‘Scottish wall’ one is in the Torygraph, no less: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/scotland/8555683/Donald-Trump-angers-neighbour-after-erecting-new-boundary-fence-and-then-billing-him.html. And it was repeated on Swedish Radio this morning. (Thanks Kajsa.) So it might be true. How can we tell?
There’s much talk these days about the ‘post-truth society’, and ‘alternative facts’; not an exclusively modern trend, of course, but seemingly becoming more widely acknowledged now. I blame capitalism: capitalists don’t need to tell the truth, only what they think they can get away with, and what will ‘sell’. That’s Trump’s whole career, to a T. (See this superb account by Sidney Blumenthal in the latest LRB: https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n04/sidney-blumenthal/a-short-history-of-the-trump-family). I suspect that in intellectual circles the ‘relativist’ tendency in ‘post-modernism’ might also have had an influence, if only to undermine otherwise intelligent people’s resistance to ‘post-truth’. Whatever.
The difference today appears to be that it’s more widely accepted that politicians (and others) tell lies; not occasionally, but as their default position. That’s what true ‘conspiracy theorists’ used to believe, which is what turned so many of them into universal cynics. Trump’s lies, and the fact that so many people – almost a majority – voted for him in full knowledge of them, are turning more of us that way, which doesn’t bode well for America, for us in Britain (that deceptive Brexit campaign), or for democracy. For it is arguable that a stable society needs to be built on trust, even if that trust is naïve and wrong-headed. How can we carry on, now, if we can’t even be sure whether something is a joke or not? Or if we can’t even rely on the Daily Telegraph? (Irony.)
I stopped researching the secret services a few years ago when I found all this deception – on both sides: both the spies and the counter-spies – getting through to me. In this ‘wilderness of mirrors’, I had no firm ground to stand on. I started erecting all kind of ingenious conspiracies of my own. One was that Thatcher was a Soviet ‘mole’. (It fits! Here’s a novelistic version of it I posted a year ago on this blog: https://bernardjporter.com/2016/01/31/the-thatcher-conspiracy/.) I first aired that in the conclusion to the second edition of my Plots and Paranoia, merely to illustrate the damage that this kind of history could do to one’s mind, and to explain why, therefore, I was returning to the more dependable field of imperialism. (Yes, of course, that involves deceit too. But it’s not quite so intrinsic to it.) One reviewer, obviously blind to irony, took me seriously.
One could write a whole history of Britain or America along these lines. I might try it myself, as my next project. I could incorporate the query jokes, and the query false facts. It would be an ‘alternative history’, of Britain and/or the USA. They’d love it in Trump-land, if I pitched it right. It would be fun to do, and maybe even useful, if I made its purpose plain. I’ll give it some thought.
(Actually, it’s already been done. Read any ‘patriotic’ American or British history. And look up ‘Carroll Quigley’ on Google. But my angle would be different. I haven’t decided on that yet. Any suggestions would be welcome.)