The idea that the news media is not, in fact, a perfectly reliable source of information on politically divisive or sensitive subjects, even in societies we broadly consider to be free, is not a new one. Criticism of mainstream media has long been a feature of the unruly left in the old western block. Manufacturing Consent, by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, is a full book going to great lengths to elaborate on structural elements contributing to this. The propaganda theory they lay out is not in any meaningful sense a conspiracy theory, nor does it require the press to consciously lie down and repeat whatever the people in power want them to regurgitate.
Even so, one thing I remember coming across way too often when dealing with political discussions was people who would say they thought Chomsky was right, and plowed right on into arguing that it was horrible how everyone was buying all the rubbish being piled our way by the rightwingers who were in control of everything. Stuff that, while I might be sympathetic to the basic direction, just isn’t borne out by the facts of the matter. The vast majority of the people I talked to didn’t think this way, but enough that I recognised a pattern. You see, there were other things that connected these people.
One element was particularly striking to me, and remains so: They tended to be people that saw politics and morality as colinear, and not orthogonal.1 You couldn’t be moral and apolitical; you couldn’t oppose their politics without being evil. The sort of people, in short, who will unironically use phrases like ‘the sheeple’. Politics are not shaped by facts; it’s the other way around. I found this ironic. This was a couple of years after someone in the latter Bush administration described himself as not part of the ‘reality-based community’.
That was sorta funny at the time. “Oh look,” we could say, “our political opponents say they don’t care about reality.” But we knew they did, ultimately. We presumed their support to come mostly from people whose ideological positions we opposed, for reasons ranging from misunderstanding to malice. The existential threat, if one was presumed to be there, was not from political antagonists in the west, but from The Terrorists™ and their allies. That’s no longer the case. One only needs to glance quite casually at Roy Moore’s senatorial campaign to see ample evidence. Brexit isn’t much better. And of course there is no question whatever that Donald Trump’s presidency will be seen as a major watershed.
But it’s not a bolt out of the blue. The basis for this—all of this—has been building for a while. And underpinning most of it is the slow but constant erosion of truth. The filters of the mainstream media create a bias to be sure, but they’ve also ensured that the reporting has at least some basis in reality. When we no longer assume that to be the case, our imagined communities cease to function properly. I don’t see that ending well.
It’s a truism by now that politics is too simple to be captured by a simple right‐left axis. A common solution is to bring a second dimension of some sort into it. The Political Compass uses attitudes towards authority as its second axis. There are, of course, problems with that approach as well–but it’s certainly not worse than any single-axis categorisation you can come up with.[return]