In the aftermath of the “alternative facts” imbroglio set off by Trump Administration Virago-in-Chief Kellyanne Conway earlier this week, Merriam-Webster briefly and uncharacteristically dropped into the political fray with this tweet:
📈A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality. https://t.co/gCKRZZm23c
— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) January 22, 2017
Armed with this little dart, the Dumptrumpsters cheered, whistled, and stamped their feet, claiming validation and victory. Such mob responses always generate suspicion in me, I’m afraid, and it may be that I was one of a very few who couldn’t help but hear an echo of former President Bill Clinton’s interesting epistemological challenge, “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” in the Minister of Propaganda’s suggestion.
In that presented as lies the problem. As anyone who has seen Rashomon will tell you, information can be presented as objective reality from a variety of perspectives, and you don’t need to be a student of Asian cinema — or an admirer of classical philosophy, obsessed since the construction of the stoa with the question “What is truth?” — to realize it. What’s more interesting to me is that Comrades Conway and Sean Spicer appear to have taken the same classes as I did in college.
Back in darkest antiquity — oh, the 1980s or so — the liberal arts were awash in a assault on the concept of truth itself. Especially in literary studies, philosophy, and history, the professoriate, many of whom were veterans of the upheavals of the 1960s, had the same attitude towards facts and reality as the current administration. Literature, abstract thought, and historical events were all brought under the new lenses introduced by philosophers, most of them from France. Your Honor, I wish to introduce the following Wikipedia definitions into evidence and request to have them read into the record, stipulating that Wikipedia definitions appear to be as good as any others in defining terms which themselves beggar definition:
Structuralism: The belief that phenomena of human life are not intelligible except through their interrelations. These relations constitute a structure, and behind local variations in the surface phenomena there are constant laws of abstract culture.
Deconstruction: The object of language and what upon which any text is founded is irreducibly complex, unstable, or impossible. … [O]riginary complexity, which by definition cannot ever be completely known, works its structuring and destructuring effects.
Reader-response criticism: Literature should be viewed as a performing art in which each reader creates their own, possibly unique, text-related performance.
Like it or not, the American academy greeted these ideas with hosannas, and subsequently they gave rise to a variety of epistemological disciplines (if they can be called that; perhaps “mutations” would be a better word) that have kept the professoriate busy to the present day. Here were ideas you could base any number of papers, books, and theories on, spewing language like spiders spin webs; you can defend anything so long as proof and even defense are by definition impossible, and at length and with terminologies and vocabularies that would test the imagination of a Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear. Jonathan Swift deftly ridiculed all of this in A Tale of a Tub more than 300 years ago, and his refutation continues to stand.
All this is harmless, fine and dandy as long as it takes place around the circle-jerk of a seminar table at a small private liberal arts college in the northeastern United States; there is some validity in some of it, just as a stopped clock is right twice a day. But once it seeps out into the dog’s breakfast of American culture-at-large, you’ve got trouble. “The president does believe that [voter fraud took place] … based on studies and evidence people have presented to him,” Spicer said yesterday, and what is this but Trump’s own unique, text-related performance? And according to this story, Herr Trump has requested that the government conduct its own seminar on contemporary epistemology in the public sphere, evading the controversy altogether. Also on the reading list, no doubt, will be the voter fraud accusations that arose during the Democratic primaries from Jill Stein, Bernie Sanders, and their minions. I imagine we can expect the final papers coming due sometime during some unforeseeable but inevitable future scandal, when, like most academic final papers, they will be quietly read and graded by some poor graduate assistant and subsequently tossed into the recycle bin.
Just as much as anybody else, I’d love to see Trump return to the backwaters of the celebrity swamp, and as soon as possible, but it’s worth considering our own role in our present tribulations. It turns out that facts and history are not quite as mutable as the theorists would have them; they do come in handy at times. But it’s a bit surprising to note, perhaps, that the President’s philosophical ancestor is Paul de Man — a leading light of the deconstructionist movement in the 1970s and 1980s, until it was revealed that he had in fact been a Nazi collaborator and the author of anti-Semitic tracts in Belgium during World War II. Hm. Perhaps not surprising after all.