I’d planned to open this blog with George W. Bush, since he was Colbert’s inspiration for the notion of truthiness. But yesterday, Russia invaded Ukraine.
What always struck me as most dystopian about the Soviet Union was its leaders’ ability to erase reality. I remember as a boy viewing reproductions of doctored Soviet photographs next to the originals. People who’d subsequently been deemed enemies of the state had been excised, as if they’d never existed.
Yesterday I listened to a BBC anchor, James Menendez, interview a member of the United Russia party, Vitaly Milonov. Russia, Milonov said, is sending “pigeons of peace over Ukraine.” Putin is “the most honorable man in the world.” If the BBC had reporters in Ukraine, he said, they would see Ukrainians welcoming Russia’s “liberators” from the “Ukrainian Nazi regime” with flowers. Menendez pushed back, to no effect.
Menendez switched to Michael McFaul, formerly the American ambassador to Russia, who put Menendez himself on the defensive. “I want to ask a question of the BBC. If it was September 1st, 1939, would you put on the air a member of the Nazi Party to try to explain this ridiculous, absolute falsification of history and information that we just heard from Mr. Milonov? You put him on and then you put me on. It’s ‘here’s one view, here’s another view,’ and I don’t like that.”
Trump didn’t invent the term “fake news,” but he gave it juice. His twist was to redefine it as any reporting critical of him. And since honest journalists are obligated to note discrepancies between word and deed – and since no public figure in America has ever created word/deed chasms like Trump – their entire body of work has become “fake news,” and they themselves have become “enemies of the state.” Trump gave his followers license to ignore them, or worse.
Stalin used the phrase “enemies of the people” to tar those who criticized him. For most of the twentieth century, the Soviets managed an enormous propaganda machine, one that didn’t have to rely on verisimilitude because no competing views were allowed. Russia today isn’t as airtight as the Soviet Union. But Putin, the ex-KGB agent who called the USSR’s dissolution the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” would like to turn back the clock. His principal weapons are violence and fiction.
There was no pretense of verisimilitude in Milonov’s claims. They were, as McFaul said, “utter nonsense.” Actual fake news. But for most Russians, exposed only to media under Putin’s hegemony, the claims stand unchallenged. My greater worry is actually for those of us in the U.S. who have the luxury of exposure to actual journalists.
Honest journalists are under siege. They are staggered by partisan smears, dismissed reflexively as liars by much of the country, and weakened by an information economy that monetizes attention through outrage. In this climate, the point-counterpoint ethos, the laudable attempt at journalistic balance, backfires. It rewards liars and demagogues by giving them oxygen and the appearance of equal standing with those constrained by facts. The Menendez – Milonov exchange illustrates the danger. Milonov blustered, confident and profane; Menendez objected, baffled and incredulous. Menendez’s facts were a weak bulwark against Milonov’s amplified noise.
Today, Russian soldiers are killing Ukrainians with violence, and Putin is preserving support in Russia with fiction. There can be little doubt about our own former President’s admiration for authoritarians who hold onto power through violence. But there can be no doubt about his use of fiction and fact-free noise to achieve power. Trump whisperer Steve Bannon knew the playbook: “Flood the zone with shit.” The strategy’s working. For all of the moral ugliness of his policies, this weaponization of fiction – in Harry Frankfurt’s precise sense, the weaponization of bullshit – holds the greater threat to America.