“Let the bullets fly for a while”: an allegory from China

By Mei Zhan

Let me begin with a fiction.  Let the Bullets Fly, a Chinese “action comedy,” was wildly popular upon its release in 2010.  Witty, gory, at times bawdy, and determinedly absurd, the plot centered around the confrontation between Zhang Mazi, a fictitious Chinese Robin Hood impersonating a county governor (whom, upon being captured by Zhang, impersonated the governor’s secretary in order to survive) and his nemesis Master Huang, a mobster boss who turned out to have a body double.  The opening scenes of the film featured what appeared to be a steam-engine train, only to reveal a few seconds later that the train was pulled along the rail tracks by horses and the white steam arose from an impossibly large hotpot around which the governor and his entourage were dining and singing.  Zhang and his bandits took aim and fired several shots.  As the train continued roaring on, one bandit asked, “Did we miss?” Zhang calmly replied, “Let the bullets fly for a while”.  Neither horse nor train was hit.  But the train soon stopped as the horse reins came undone.

Although unable to pin down the historical and allegorical references in the film, many Chinese viewers understand it to be a political satire.  They marvel at the fact that it not only circumvented government censorship, but also generated a slew of catchphrases widely used in everyday discourse. “Let the bullets fly for a while” in particular has acquired an effervescent afterlife on Chinese social media, which is saturated with sensational news of all natures and scales: natural and human-made disasters, political scandals, abuse of police power, medical malpractice and violence against doctors and nurses, illegal trade and consumption of wild life, celebrity extramarital affairs, and so forth.  These dramatic events often unfold through multiple rounds of disguises, revelations, and revisions.

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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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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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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’ have also been published on the blog. 

“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)”

Truth under Trump: Climate Change, Space Exploration, and “Politicized Science”

By Erik Baker

After the election of Donald Trump in November, his liberal opponents were near-unanimous about what his ascendency portended for the present political moment. We now live in a “post-truth” era, proclaimed pundits, professors (including a few here at the Kennedy School), and even the Oxford English Dictionary. Fueled by “fake news,” appeals to reality have apparently lost their salience in American political discourse, replaced by “bullshit artists” spouting off made-up narratives based on nothing but their pre-existing political sympathies.

Recently, however, something odd has happened: Trump and his allies have been saying exactly the same thing about their critics. In the aftermath of Trump’s January 11th press conference, in which he shut down a CNN reporter attempting to ask a question by repeatedly shouting “fake news,” it is more important than ever to contemplate the possibility that those early election postmortems may have misunderstood Trumpism in a fundamental — and dangerous — way. Perhaps the “post-truth” barb is a double-edged sword. Perhaps “truth,” somehow, still matters. Continue reading “Truth under Trump: Climate Change, Space Exploration, and “Politicized Science””

Shifting Political Orders: “Post-Truth Politics” in the U.K., U.S., and Brazil

By Tito Carvalho

As the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union and the United States elected President Donald Trump, Brazil partook in its own major political event with the impeachment of President Dilma Rouseff after fourteen years of rule by her Workers Party. But while the U.K. and U.S. cases have been seen as victories of right wing populists over liberal technocratic elites, the Brazilian case has been seen as the demise of a left populist government before its center-right opposition. Despite these ostensive differences, the term “post-truth politics” has been deployed in all three circumstances. I propose that a comparison of these cases shows that this term, as any other, has no fixed meaning that is independent from the context in which it is used. Instead of attempting to define “post-truth politics” once and for all, I argue that we are better off contending with it as a useful marker of shifting political orders.

On November 16, 2016, The Oxford Dictionary named “post-truth” its word of the year. It defined the term as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” However, in the largest country of the Lusophone world, wherein “post-truth politics” has been literally translated as “política da pós-verdade”, this definition does not quite apply. Deployed by Brazilian pundits (see below) and politicians, (e.g., Congressman Jean Wyllys, of the Party of Socialism and Freedom), the notion of “política da pós-verdade” has meant something other than appeals to emotion and personal belief to counter objective facts. Rather, it has been used to question what those on the left see as a strategic assemblage of various facts by the center-right to engender the narrative that the Workers Party is simultaneously incompetent, corrupt, and idealistic, and to galvanize the urban middle class against the government. For example, as Bob Fernandes, a Brazilian political commentator, has said, post-truth is when opposition leaders are interviewed about corruption accusations made against members of the Workers Party without being questioned about similar accusations made against themselves. Or, as Thais Herédia, an economic analyst, has written, post-truth is when the opposition makes different Gross Domestic Product projections before and after the impeachment. In other words, the phrase “post-truth politics” operates not on an objective-facts-versus-personal-beliefs axis, but rather is invoked to question what facts matter, how they are produced, selected, and curated, and by whom and for whom. Continue reading “Shifting Political Orders: “Post-Truth Politics” in the U.K., U.S., and Brazil”