"Alternative Facts"

01/25/2017 02:37 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2018

"Alternative Facts": The skies were clear over Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. The U.S. won the war in Vietnam in 1962. September 11th, 2001 was just another Tuesday in New York City.

The problem with obliterating "facts" is that it's an all-or-nothing proposition. In destroying truths that do not serve power, when the inevitable time comes when the Trump people will need real "facts" to pursue something vital or to rally the nation there won't be anything there.

At some point, even with all the manufactured distractions that flow from the fertile imagination of Stephen K. Bannon, the U.S. military is going to be asked to fall in line behind some Trump foreign policy adventure and in the back of every service-member's mind is going to be: "Am I risking my life for alternative facts?"

A hundred years ago propagandists like Edward Bernays and George Creel believed the only way to bring an open "democratic" society like the United States to war was for the government to go to great lengths to "manufacture consent" among the masses of people.

The task for the Woodrow Wilson Administration to drive public support for entering the "Great War" in Europe was to spread fear about the unique evilness of the "Huns" and push emotional buttons such as crying out for the victims, protecting American womanhood, and exacting revenge against foreign predators. People needed to believe the lies, therefore the government needed a degree of credibility.

In 1917, Arthur Bullard, who had been a student of Wilson's at Princeton and became a successful journalist and commentator, sent the president a copy of his book, Mobilizing America, his treatise on propaganda.

"Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms," Bullard wrote. "There is nothing in experience to tell us that one is always preferable to the other. . . . There are lifeless truths and vital lies. . . . The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little whether it is true or false."

Sound familiar? The type of propaganda already emerging from our new government that hasn't even been in power for a week looks less like the kind intended to "manufacture consent" in a democracy, and more like the state-sponsored propaganda of authoritarian dictatorships. Spouting off about "alternative facts" is a big signal that the new administration doesn't really give a damn about "manufacturing consent" and is determined to just ram this new reality down our throats.

Conservative Republicans, once the self-proclaimed purveyors of cultural "truth" have now apparently found it useful to go down what they used to call the "slippery slope" of relativism because it serves a propaganda function that enhances their power in the 21st Century media environment.

It's interesting to see right-wingers who have been whining for decades about the rise of post-structuralism and deconstruction on college campuses - (Google: Allan Bloom) - come around to signify in their own discourse that there's really no such thing as "truth" in any case thereby proving that Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and all the other philosophers and academics they so disparaged were correct all along.

The concept of "alternative facts" is a fitting example of what we can expect from the Trump White House spokespeople because it betrays a kind of self-indulgent irrationalism and a narcissistic relation to their own rhetoric. Richard Nixon famously said: "We are all Keynesians now"; the Trump people should proclaim: "We're all post-structuralists now."

It's not surprising that in an Internet atmosphere where the opinions of anonymous weirdos and trolls matter more than scientists or educators, and hostile "alt-right" foot-stomping obliterates "truth" and "objectivity," that a skilled demagogue would rise out of this linguistic swamp.

The Trump election shows just how young and naïve a country the United States is. Young, in that it has never suffered the direct consequences of war as people in Europe or Asia have, and has never seen the rise of fascism; naïve, in that our educational system has failed to teach citizens how to spot a demagogue when they see one, or understand the pitfalls of fusing belligerent nationalism with corporate power.

Instead of actually engaging ideas and realistically parsing policy proposals we get bizarre denials of fact and Big Lies that boomerang back into the discourse in ways that challenge our grasp of reality itself; this is why lying politicians are corrosive to our democracy.

Most Americans don't know about the historical dynamics that allowed a nation like Germany to descend into barbarism; or what happened at places like Babi Yar, Treblinka, or Sobibor. But I guess in a world of "alternative facts" nothing really happened there anyway.