Make Engineering Great Again: Shifting to ‘Self-Expert’ Platform of Governance in Iran and the US

By Ehsan Nabavi

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has recently been blocked from running again in Iran’s presidential elections, is probably the farthest example of a foreign leader Americans can think of as analogous to Trump. the two share a resemblance, however, in a number of ways. Particularly in how both build their governance platform on creating “shock events,” as well as providing alternative interpretations of what constitutes expertise and knowledge, through which they themselves act as the central expert.

Like Trump, Ahmadinejad’s populist platform has massively criticized Iranian political elites and the experts who worked with them for using their power to monopolize wealth. He was nominated by the Alliance of Builders/Developers of Islamic Iran (Abadgaran) with a promise to redistribute wealth, recreate the original revolutionary spirit of 1979 Revolution, and regain the country’s lost pride, dignity, and esteem, particularly in when confronting the West. Paraphrasing, Ahmadinejad’s platform is to Make Iran Great Again.

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Post-truth Politics in Switzerland and Threats to Direct Democracy

By Francesca Bosisio

In the days that followed Donald Trump’s election, the media celebrated the dawn of a new Age, characterized by post-truth or post-fact politics. A point in the history of modern society in which a previously authoritative source of knowledge is neither considered as a reliable source of information nor a need. But post-truth politics, as opposed to its branding, is not a new phenomenon: worldwide, candidates have long ago diverted facts and statistics and appealed to people’s emotions to reach large parts of the population. The spread of social media has reinforced this trend. On the one hand, social media gave an audience to people who do not want or do not have the opportunity to go public via traditional mass media. On the other hand, it is allegedly more difficult to deny, challenge or improve the contents of a discussion happening on the boundaries of the private and the public sphere.

In Switzerland, few mass media commented on the post-truth or post-fact phenomenon in the days that preceded or followed Trump’s election. Only few papers tried to compare the results of the US presidential election with the raising of populist movements in Switzerland. An editorial on “Le Matin” wrote that: “Some claim, referring to statistics, that there is no similar risk [of financial powerlessness] in Switzerland. As if politics was only a matter of data, while everywhere the anger is growing. […] [T]he feeling of economic oppression and the anguish of not having enough reserve to face a harsh blow altogether weaken solidarity and give points to the populist formations.” In the same period, the “Tages-Anzeiger” also drew a parallel between Switzerland, France, and the US by highlighting that in these countries mistrust of authorities has become a leit motiv of right-wing parties.

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Infrastructures of Compassion: Trumpism and America’s Democratic Future

By Hilton Simmet

May God continue the unity of our country as the railroad unites the two great oceans of the world.

–inscribed on the Golden Spike, Promontory Point, 1869.

A year of disbelief ended in a morning of despair. On November 9, 2016, the American people elected a real estate tycoon with no record of public service to the nation’s highest office. I will not forget the faces from that morning at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. A November gray had sunk into the faces of bleary-eyed men and women. Balloons in red, white, and blue fell from above in the post-election ball drop ritual. Some students began singing “Amazing Grace,” needing, it seemed, almost religious comfort. Words came to me not of grace but of compassion, from the Vedic shloka “from ignorance, lead me to truth … from the darkness of suffering, lead us to the light of compassion.” I thought of Trump supporters, wherever they were, and wondered if, in their jubilation, they understood how their years of dejection and loss had now been shifted to the other side of the wall separating elite rationality from mass fervor.

Understanding on anyone’s part seemed unlikely. The election had rejected the Kennedy School’s culture of calculated truths, coolly leading the world one smart policy decision at a time. It marked a radical division between citizens, exposing the fragility of the “we” in “We the people.” This “we” depends on compassion, a feeling for the plight of the other. Yet, one of my own students asked, “How can I find empathy for groups of people who deny my right to exist?” I did not answer. How can one find a “we” of shared value and concern in a country gripped by fear and the impending threat of violence? Not, I believe, by casting Trump’s supporters as the enemy. They are only the symptoms of the breakdown of the polity into “us” and “them.” We must look deeper into this breakdown, examining failures in what I call “infrastructures of compassion”: the epistemic, material, and normative structures that underwrite the democratic enterprise. Instead of investing $1 trillion in physical infrastructure, longer-term “investment” is needed in our infrastructures of compassion to safeguard America’s democratic future against the recurrent threat of Trumpism.

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Post-truth, Alt-facts, and Asymmetric Controversies (Part II)

Uncivil Epistemology

By Michael Lynch

Editors’ note: This is the second part of a three-post series by Michael Lynch. ‘Part I: Between Liars and Truthers’ has been published and ‘Part III: The Truther Paradox’ will be published in the coming weeks. 

Some of the “epistemological” disputes that arose in the early days of the Trump administration had to do with specialized factual claims made by scientists, investigative reporters, and intelligence agents. However, some of the most notable disputes about “facts” and “alternative facts” concerned more mundane matters, such as the crowd size at the inauguration. The advantage of mundane facts in political discourse is that they appear to be democratically available: there is no apparent need to trust the “so-called experts.” For similar reasons, reverting to such plain examples also is common in academic disputes. Those of us familiar with the debates about realism and relativism in the “science wars” of the 1990s may recall that simple mundane examples often stood proxy for arguments about more technical matters. Continue reading “Post-truth, Alt-facts, and Asymmetric Controversies (Part II)”

Thought From the Outside: Post-Truth and Cambodian Political Theater

By Casper Bruun Jensen

Post-truth, the post-factual, alternative facts. In the wake of Donald Trump’s campaign and election as president of the United States, these terms swirl around the social media and public sphere with increasing frequency. Trump’s blatant disregard for the category of facts, if not for reality itself, perplexes and infuriates his many opponents. One hears the refrain “We are entering uncharted territory.” At stake is a challenge to the long-cherished notion of speaking truth to power. If power refuses to listen, what would be the point of scientific knowledge? Just think of the unheeded warnings against global warming.

What might political life in Cambodia tell about this situation? Located around 9000 miles from Washington D.C, the modus operandi of politics in Phnom Penh confronts us with some of what Michel Foucault called “thought from the outside.” A glance at this thought might help put into sharper focus what is, and is not, unprecedented about the current American situation. For what this thought is “outside” to is, among other things, the idea that the normal state of affairs is one where scientific facts balance or constrain political power.

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Tweets of Fury

By Theodore M. Porter

Someday, in the underground files of the Natural History Museum of Personality Anomalies, the curators will push aside the pale, red-edged Narcissus poeticus to clear space for a truculent orange mutant, N. bombastus, type specimen of a form that disables the faculty of reason. Narcissism, as everyone knows, is a not uncommon characteristic of the political class. Trump’s is distinguished by an astonishing level of insecurity and consequent need for affirmation. The rude applause of a boisterous crowd serves this purpose very nicely. The question of why such persons oblige is an unsolved mystery, and those who do not join in noisy admiration may suppose that he has done nothing to earn it. Yet the numbers are never large enough. At the head of this president’s parade of lies is the seemingly pointless one, unquestionably false, that the number of enthusiasts at his inauguration beats out every possible rival.

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New Tech Only Benefits the Elite Until the People Demand More

By Christopher Jones

The United States faces an infrastructure crisis. Report after report warns that the nation’s networks are old, brittle and vulnerable. Systems that were once the envy of the world now suffer from chronic underfunding and neglect. If you’ve travelled in western Europe or parts of China recently, you probably noticed the unfavourable comparison between roads and subways in the US and those abroad. A culture enthralled with disruptive innovation has ignored the fundamental importance of maintaining its technological backbones.

The need for infrastructure revitalisation is so pressing that, despite today’s polarised politics, it actually draws bipartisan agreement. President Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address called for ‘rebuild[ing] our infrastructure’. The Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has argued that ‘we have to rebuild our infrastructure: our bridges, our roadways, our airports’, and his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton has pledged $275 billion in additional spending for infrastructure upgrades.

Can we make US infrastructure great again? Yes, and clearly financial investment is essential. But that is not all. Infrastructure is not, and never has been, simply a collection of material objects. The secret of the country’s infrastructure success lies in a forgotten political history: the demands by millions of Americans over time for fairer and more equitable access to rails, pipes, wires, roads and more. The wondrous US infrastructure achievements happened when citizens participated in infrastructure decisions. One can even propose a rule: the better the democracy, the better the infrastructure.

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Environmental Data, Public Trust, and Guerrilla Archiving

By Evan Hepler-Smith

Over the weeks between the election and the inauguration, activists and critical observers sought to take preemptive action against a range of anticipated threats posed by the incoming administration. For the most part, they have focused on the same subjects of concern as opponents of Donald Trump did during the campaign: immigrants, Muslim Americans, women, people of color, LGBTQ Americans, environmental policies, trade agreements, the Affordable Care Act. The status of facts themselves – twisted, faked, checked, misinterpreted, ignored – has been and remains a signal worry. Since the election, however, such fears have also latched upon a new subject: data, especially environmental data. Continue reading “Environmental Data, Public Trust, and Guerrilla Archiving”

Post-truth, Alt-facts, and Asymmetric Controversies (Part I)

Between Liars and Truthers

By Michael Lynch

Editors’ note: This is the first part of a three-post series by Michael Lynch. ‘Part II: Uncivil Epistemology’ and ‘Part III: The Truther Paradox’ will be published in the coming weeks. 

“Mr. Trump falsely accused the media of lying.” This compact but complicated headline in a New York Times article reporting on Trump’s first day in office added another link to a chain of accusations about falsehoods and lies between Trump and the “establishment” press. The new president and his press secretary had dismissed reports that unfavorably compared the size of the crowd at his inauguration with the one at Obama’s. Two days later, the Times, after editorial deliberation on the matter, explicitly used the word “lie” in a front-page headline: “Trump repeats lie about popular vote in meeting with lawmakers.” This headline referred to Trump’s claim that his sizeable popular vote deficit was due to millions of fraudulent votes cast for Hillary Clinton. When asked on Meet the Press about why Trump would persist with such “provable falsehoods,” Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway objected to the term “falsehoods,” and proposed that they were “alternative facts.” Conway’s usage went viral. Commentators likened the Trump team’s discourse to “Newspeak” in George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984, and copies of that book quickly shot up to the number one position in Amazon’s book sales.

Although intensive concern about truth, facts, and lies was dramatic during the first several days of the Trump presidency, such concern already was prominent throughout the presidential campaign. Continue reading “Post-truth, Alt-facts, and Asymmetric Controversies (Part I)”

When the Media Become the Opposition

By Pablo J. Boczkowski & Eugenia Mitchelstein

On January 25, just five days after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, chief White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon said “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while (…) The media here is the opposition party.” Three days later, President Trump tweeted “The failing @nytimes has been wrong about me from the very beginning. Said I would lose the primaries, then the general election. FAKE NEWS!”

These two episodes are consistent with the campaign communication strategy at the top of the Republican ticket and signal that neither President Donald Trump nor his staffers and loyalists plan to change course, at least during the early stages of his presidency. They thus raise the question: how might a confrontational stance between the government and the mainstream media affect the public’s perspective on their trust in politicians and the news? This post examines the practices, interpretations, and experiences of audiences to ascertain what could happen in a given certain set of circumstances—rather than laying out what should happen according to different ideals of public behavior. In this sense, our focus is different from, and complementary to, a normative approach.

Since there is no precedent of this level of confrontation in recent U.S. history, we will answer this question by drawing on our research in Argentina over the past decade to imagine possible scenarios based on some key findings. Although Argentina and the United States are different countries with diverging institutional histories, there are arguably some emerging similarities between the administrations of Presidents Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) and his spouse Cristina Fernández (2007-2015) in Argentina and the initial stages of Donald Trump’s presidency. In fact, Guillermo Moreno, Secretary of Commerce to both Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández, and one of the most powerful figures in both administrations, said in an interview that Donald Trump “is a Peronist (…) and is doing everything we did.” Continue reading “When the Media Become the Opposition”