Truth and Fake News

Glynn Cardy
Sun 19 May

In the Book of Exodus, chapter 32, there is the story of how the Hebrew people out of their needs and fear created a golden calf to worship.  It was a fake god – fake good news. 

The Hebrew people in the absence of Moses, and the absence of Moses’ God, created an alternate deity.  For to follow Moses’ God was hard work: no images were allowed, there was no temple, and there was no settling down.  This God of Moses’ (and of other earlier significant leaders like Abraham) was constantly on the move.  The people had to live with uncertainty.  They longed for a simple, concrete religion and a god like other tribes had.  They were fed up with the inconsistencies of a wandering God who was leading them nowhere.  So they made their own. 

If we substitute the word ‘God’ for ‘truth’ then the Bible teaches us that truth by definition is outside of our control.  Truth is not always how we would like truth to be.  Truth is often not as accessible, as understandable, and as certain as we would like, or our fears demand.  So we tempted, and many do, to make an alternate truth to suit us. 

The desire for simple concrete answers, and the seeming stability they bring, is ongoing.  Many people fear uncertainty, change, and complexity.  It is no wonder that fundamentalist religions and groups, with their supernatural solutions for fears and their allegiance to outspoken charismatic leaders, are attractive.  Fundamentalism makes truth in its own image: simple, comforting, unverifiable, and, ultimately, a golden calf.  In a society without fears fundamentalism would not find a home.

For those who have studied fundamentalism there is a close parallel with the fake news phenomena as promulgated in the presidency of Donald Trump.  Trump and his entourage have used the term ‘fake news’ regularly and consistently to disparage and indeed mock news and views they disagree with.

On the one hand the ‘fake news’ phenomena is a reminder that all news, research, and facts are dependent upon those who convey or communicate them to do so in a way that admits and tries to compensate for bias.  This is what peer-reviewed research means, namely the attempt to limit bias by submitting one’s work to peers, preferably from around the world, knowledgeable in one’s subject.

Too often in the past the biases of the dominant group – whether dominant racially, religiously, monetarily, or biologically – have been accepted as ‘fact’ without any heed paid to those outside the privileged circles.  What was considered ‘true’ would often be dependent upon where the researcher or commentators, or their paymasters, were in the hierarchy of social and economic power.  In the American political system ‘Washington’ has become a code word for the conglomeration of such hierarchical power.

It is not surprising that the Trump strategy of labelling criticism as ‘fake’ fed into and gained the applause of a significant group of largely white Americans who felt marginalized.  ‘Draining the swamp’ [of Washington] was therefore a Trumpian phrase for disempowering the powerful.

This marginalized group of Trump supporters are seemingly financially and educationally poorer, feel racially threatened, are religiously challenged by secularism, and trust in a male white God to rescue them.  For them the American financial/get-ahead dream was a fading reality and they believed that the likes of immigration, the former black president’s policies, and the media’s Washingtonian captivity was to blame.  Trump’s known infidelities and his tweet-level of understanding complex issues are absolved by his followers’ needs to have a powerful white man confirming their prejudices.  Trump offered a version of fundamentalism:  ‘Don’t think too much.  Trust me.  I’m a smart guy, I know what I’m doing.’

Labelling all criticism and alternate information/analysis as ‘fake’ news or research though, apart from undermining the necessary checks and balances of any democratic government, leads a government like Trumps into a self-serving, inward-looking spiral.  His palace policy becomes the poorer for it.  Instead of engaging with critics his entourage just dismisses their views as ‘fake’.  This was seen early in his presidency with the reversal of the previous administration’s policies and work addressing climate change.  It was also seen in the dismissal of the well-established and verified data from US intelligence agencies that the Russian government had tried to manipulate the outcome of a presidential election.  The ramifications of both of these issues go far beyond the term of the current administration.

The promulgation of the ‘fake news’ policy has not only led to poorer analysis, but has led to a leadership style within the White House which is highly attuned to popular criticism, paranoid about disloyalty, and largely sycophantic.  It is not surprising that many of the key staff have left.  It is also not surprising that some staff have been encouraged to lie to protect the president.   For those trained in the disciplines of psychology and psychotherapy it is obvious that President Trump is on the continuum of narcissist personality disorder (NPD).  This is seen particularly in his behaviour and language that interprets any and every issue to be always about him.  The virtue of humility is unknown to a NPD sufferer.

Again I would suggest the model of the charismatic fundamentalist preacher is a lens through which we can try to understand the allegiance of many Americans to Donald Trump.  For the fundamentalist preacher personality is huge – and the bigger, the flashier, the better.  He is seen as blessed by God.  He clearly identifies the enemy within, and the enemy without.  If you are not for him, you are against him.  He speaks the truth.  His enemies’ words are fake.  You are asked to have faith in him; and he will lead you to the Promised Land of prosperity, and the certainty that goes with it.

While it is tempting to dismiss the debate over ‘fake news’ and the ‘personal-popularity-is-all-important’ style of the Trump presidency, it does impact upon our life here in New Zealand.  The foundations of democracy are only as strong as the will of the people.  It is too easy to label views we don’t like as ‘fake’, and politicians and their policies likewise.  It is too easy to blame ‘Wellington’, our nexus of political and administration power and resource allocation, for the ills that beset us.  It is too easy to blame immigrant, racial, or religious groups for the wrongs we perceive in society, and for our own social and economic circumstances.  It is too easy to let our fears drive us towards a secular fundamentalism of simple answers and the search for a charismatic assertive leader to champion them.

Fundamentalist religion with its charismatic leaders has never had a strong hold in New Zealand.  The self-ordained Bishop Tamaki is not a threat to our national ability to shift truth from error, nor a threat to the checks and balances of our democracy.  We can treat fundamentalism like any other social movement – applauding when it is compassionate and concerned for the underdog, and criticising it when its leaders promote policies based on prejudice or antiquated doctrine.

This does not mean however that we don’t need to carefully discern, listen to contrary voices, pay heed to peer-reviewed scientific and academic research, and be guided by values such as most faiths promote - namely kindness, humility, compassion, and justice for all.  We need to use the tools of the social sciences to assess who are the most vulnerable and suffering in our society and what interventions and changes are needed to empower those people/groups.  We need to use the tools of economics to work for systems and policies that promote the industry and security of work, the reward of endeavour, the blessings of community, health, and education, and the participation of everyone in the care, maintenance and strengthening of the resources of this land.  We need to be committed to, and forever searching for, truth, and not be tempted by someone’s golden calf. 

As you know, I’m a fan of Michael Leunig’s.  I close with a prayer of his about truth.  As above, you could substitute the word ‘truth’ for ‘God’.

In order to be truthful

you must do more than speak the truth.

You must also hear the truth.

You must also receive truth.

You must also act upon truth.

You must also search for truth.

The difficult truth.

Within us and around us.

We must devote ourselves to truth.

Otherwise we are dishonest

and our lives are mistaken.

May we be granted the strength and the courage

to be truthful.

Amen.

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