Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

the memes of the Brexit post-mortems

I don't have any strong opinions about the Brexit decision. In general I’m in favor of functioning with the smallest possible political units; but I’m also aware that to leave the EU would be a huge step with unforeseeable consequences, which is something my conservative disposition also resists. So: no strong opinion about whether Brexit is right or wrong. But I am fascinated by the post-mortems, especially as an observer of the internet, because what the internet makes possible is the instantaneous coalescing of opinion.

So, just a few days after the referendum, intellectual Remainers already have an established explanation, a kind of Copenhagen interpretation of the events meant to yield a Standard Account: Brexiters, motivated by hatred and resentment, acted in complete disregard of facts. I feel that I’ve read a hundred variations on this blog post by Matthew Flinders already, though not all the others have warmed so openly to the idea of an “architecture of politics” meant to “enforce truthfulness.” (What should we call the primary instrument of that architecture? The Ministry of Truth, perhaps?)

I’m especially interested in Flinders’ endorsement and perpetuation of the ideas that Brexit marks the victory of “post-truth politics.” This has very rapidly become a meme — and quite a meme — and one of the signs of how it functions is that Flinders doesn't cite anyone’s use of it. He’s not pretending to have coined the term, he’s just treating it as an explanatory given — to continue my physics analogy, something like Planck’s Constant, useful to plug into your equation to make the numbers work out.

(By the way, I suspect the seed of the “post-truth politics” meme was planted by Stephen Colbert when he coined the term “truthiness”.)

The invocation of “post-truth politics” is very useful to people like Flinders because it allows him to conflate actual disregard of facts with disregard of economic predictions — you can see how those categories get mixed up in this otherwise useful fact-checking of claims by Brexiters. When that conflation happens, then you get to tar people who suspect economic and political forecasts with the same brush you use to tar people who disregard facts altogether and go with their gut — even though there are ample reasons to distrust economic and political forecasts, and indeed a kind of cottage industry in publishing devoted to explaining why so many forecasts are wrong.

There’s no question that many votes for Brexit were based on falsehoods or sheer ignorance. But when people who belong to the academic-expertise class suggest that all disagreement with their views may be chalked up to “post-truth politics” — and settle on that meme so quickly after they receive such a terrible setback to their hopes and plans — then it’s hard for me not to see the meme as defending against a threat to status. And that matters for academic life, and for the intellectual life more generally, because the instantaneous dominance of such a meme forecloses inquiry. There’s no need to look more closely at either your rhetoric or the substance of your beliefs if you already have a punchy phrase that explains it all.


  • You’re right about the peril of conflating facts and forecasts, particularly economic prognostications (though all but the most trivial bruta facta are themselves value-laden). Market think-tank models or crystal balls – when it comes to predicting the financial future, take your pick.

    However it seems to me that the real issue here is not about truth and falsehood, it’s about bullshit. Harry Frankfurt observes that “the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.” That is, the bullshitter is not just a liar, he is a fake. All politicians lie, or at least are “economical with the truth”, which the EU referendum confirmed big-time in the corrosive campaigning and brutal debates. But when it comes to bullshitting, the Brexiteers won hands down – or, better, bovine butts up. Boris Johnson, an Old Etonian who claimed to speak for hoi polloi, had a poorly camouflaged personal political agenda, viz., the occupation of 10 Downing Street, while Nigel Farage, a millionaire banker who cunningly honed his image as an ordinary working-class bloke-in-the-pub, draped his repugnant racism with the flag of “Make Britain Great Again” (read "Make Britain White Again"). Both are frauds and users.

    I blame the British educational system. In an address delivered at the National Convention of the Teachers of English in November 1969, the late Neil Postman suggested that “the best things schools can do for kids is to help them learn how to distinguish useful talk from bullshit.” Absolutely. As an American expat who has lived in the UK since the early 70s, I can’t comment on the American school system, but here the philosophy [sic] of education is Gradgrindean in its utilitarianism and obsession with testing, measurable results, and league tables. Bullshit detection with all its moral significance? Forget it.

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