Don’t Let The Post Fact World Get In The Way

(This was also posted at Medium on July 2, 2018. My latest single, Don’t Let The Facts Get In The Way, is streaming herehere and here.)

At the dawn of the Trump era, distinguished intellectual Francis Fukuyama announced the emergence of a Post Fact World. When I first read the title of his post, I was like, “say what now? Facts are… facts, right? Or maybe with the election of Donald Trump, the very building blocks of the universe have transformed into shape shifting, fact-less vapor. Please, oh wise intellectual, do tell me more.”

Fukuyama’s most famous work, The End of History and The Last Man, published in 1992, posited that with the fall of communism, liberal democracy and capitalism had triumphed over all other organizing principles of governance, perhaps constituting the final form of human government. I confess to having not read The End of History — even in those propitious times (cue Right Here Right Now), I found that the title alone expressed more hubristic myopia than I could bear to explore. My intent here is not to damn Mr. Fukuyama to positions he took in a previous millennium, but rather to explore his certainly more mature opinion that we’ve arrived in a Post Fact world.

As Fukuyama looks out at the beginning of 2017, he not surprisingly focuses on the internet; its emergence in the 90s as a harbinger of “liberation and a boon for democracy worldwide,” its facilitation of social media in the 2000s, and its current ubiquity, both “good” and “bad.” Indeed he laments that, given the tsunami of information currently clogging the internet “from all possible sources…there is no reason to think that good information will win out over bad information.” One hopes, as a credulous reader, that by “good” information he means factual information, and by “bad” information he means false information. Given his RAND Corporation background, however, a curious mind would be wise to not jump to any conclusions.

A bit about the RAND Corporation, for those who may now for the first time be woke, post-Trump. RAND was spun out of the Douglas Aircraft Corporation as a non profit in 1948, becoming a foundational think tank of what would later be christened the Military-Industrial Complex. Of course, according to its mission statement, RAND is most like a beneficent, high fiber cereal — good for the whole family: ”RAND has used rigorous, fact-based research and analysis to help individuals, families, and communities throughout the world be safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous.” Who can argue with this kind of wholesome, unbiased virtue? Certainly not Francis Fukuyama. Nor would his RAND cohorts Henry KissingerDonald RumsfeldZalmay Kalilzad and Condoleezza Rice.

A baseline presumption of RAND think-tankers is that it is a wondrously good thing that the U.S. possesses history’s first truly global empire. That the empire is powered by oligarchical consumer capitalism and congenital militarism (800 bases worldwide!) may be grudgingly admitted in polite company. Sure, there are problems, but if the shining city on the hill doesn’t lead (in whatever fashion it does, correct by definition), nefarious others will (that PUTIN is an exceptionally BAD egg). Being part of a bi-polar, tri-polar or multi-polar world could only be defeat for the U.S., or so think those with properly-fitted RAND thinking caps. How the maintenance of U.S. empire helps “communities throughout the world” prosper in the manner RAND believes they ought is a conundrum that can only be solved by the adroit of mind, those who can use that fact-based research to support the necessary conclusions.

Returning to Mr. Fukuyama, he goes on to wonder “Why do we believe in the authority of any fact, given that few of us are in a position to verify most of them?” This is a legitimate question and one that I have often asked. For indeed, as Mr. Fukuyama suggests, without trust — in whatever form of messenger, be it a person, institution or organ of media?—?we are left meandering in an inchoate stew of information. It is a perilous predicament, but one born from the triumph of the means and methods of U.S. global domination, particularly — the savior, the bane — the ARPANET-birthed internet.

Continuing, Fukuyama cites one media institution as an example of being worthy of trust — unsurprisingly, the New York Times, which has “systems in place to prevent egregious factual errors from appearing in their copy.” While I have no doubt that the NYT employs fact checkers, perhaps warehouses of them sweating anxiously at their keyboards, the shift bosses must have had them all on team building picnics during the Tonkin Gulf incident and the invasion of Iraq. Of course “egregious factual errors” aren’t necessarily the only metric one takes into account when coming to a conclusion about the trustworthiness of a news source. I refer, as you may have suspected, to the phenomenon of editorial bias, expressed in a variety of ways; including but not limited to: mind-reading (courtesy of economist Dean Baker, see herehere & here), obfuscation (again, courtesy of Dean Baker, see herehere & here) and the granddaddy of them all, emphasis/omission.

Perhaps the easiest way to observe the way the NYT emphasizes or de-emphasizes certain issues and stories, effectively corralling the acceptable and/or profitable topics of conversation, is to observe a word cloud reflecting word usage in a representative sample of stories appearing in the Times over the past year, from July 2, 2017 to July 2, 2018 (thank you, Media Cloud):

I will grant the Times some latitude here. The act of collecting facts and stories occuring in a world with an ever increasing amount of both into something coherent is an inherently subjective one. Nonetheless, for a country that spends, according the Congressional Budget Office, one sixth of its fiscal energy on its military, one might expect that country’s Paper of Record to devote a substantial amount of copy to how that money is spent. Do you see the word “Afghanistan” up there, where the U.S. has been at war for 17 years and currently has 15,000 troops stationed? Do you see the word “Syria” up there, where the U.S. currently has 2,000 troops stationed? Do you see the word “Yemen” up there, where U.S. troops have been aiding and abetting war crimes perpetrated by Saudi Arabian troops for the past three years? Do you see the words “Palestine” or “Israel” up there, where U.S. military and economic support makes possible the maintenance of an apartheid regime? Now, we all know that the NYT has in fact published stories about these places in the past year, but apparently far fewer than stories about “Trump,” “Mao” and “Sadness.”

Returning to the arc of Fukuyama’s argument, he observes that the “inability to agree on the most basic facts is a direct product of an across-the-board assault on democratic institutions.” He goes on to note that “powerful interest groups have been able to protect themselves through a system of unlimited campaign finance,” identifying Congress as the “locus of this decay.” For a man as bright as Fukuyama, it is puzzling that he identifies the problem of financial corruption in our democratic institutions as being responsible for the deterioration of a common cultural narrative, but makes no effort to follow the money, instead contentedly throwing Congress under the bus (not that they don’t deserve it, too).

There are many ways that the corporate/governmental revolving doors are greased for “powerful interest groups,” few more elaborately structured and planned as those employed by Lord Pentagon and his Military-Industrial Complex. I refer to phenomena identified by Chuck Spinney back in the 90s in his white paper Defense Power Games: “front-loading” of the 5 year military budget, which involves placing investment in new weapons systems, regardless of their viability, necessity or true prospective cost (reliably underestimated) in the first year of the budget and deferring normal operational costs to the end of the budget cycle; and “political engineering,” the process of ensuring that jobs funded by Pentagon dollars, like those jobs at RAND Corporation, are spread across as many congressional districts as possible. In 2016, for instance, 81 of 83 counties in my home state of Michigan contained Pentagon funded jobs.*

So, sure, blame Congress, but let’s give credit where credit is due — Fukuyama’s “powerful interest groups” have been setting the parameters of our cultural narrative and circumscribing what counts as worthy of being called “factual” for a long time.

Finally, Fukuyama laments that “belief in the corruptibility of all institutions leads to a dead end of universal distrust” and that American democracy “will not survive the lack of belief in the possibility of impartial institutions.” The fact that American “democracy,” such as it is, has been dying a slow death for quite awhile seems to have escaped the net of this RAND-man’s fact based research. At least that’s my take away from the fact that since 1960, 44.59% of the voting age population in this country have declined to participate in presidential elections. So, almost one out of every two people in the greatest country ever, at the height of its vaunted power, haven’t — for one reason or another — found a way to exercise their apportioned freedom. Though their reasons are many and varied, if I were a betting man (and, boy, sometimes I really am), I’d lay odds that the rationale for most non-voters not voting is apathy, rooted in a “lack of belief in the possibility of impartial institutions.”

*the data available at governmentcontractswon.com is sourced from the Federal Procurement Data System. Unfortunately, the Michigan data cited is behind a paywall, so I am unable to link directly to it.

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