Truth, Post-Truth, and Nothing but the Truth

“At best you can run a lil’ company … at worst, I could run the whole country”[1]

By Geoff Moore
This week in Tunisia, public hearings began as part of that country’s Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC). This Commission, an essential component of the Tunisian transitional justice project, exists to analyze violations against the citizens of Tunisia during the regime of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, the dictator ousted during the Arab Spring. More specifically, the TDC is meant to “reveal the truth about the violations…committed by the State’s apparatuses or by groups or individuals who acted in the State’s name.”[2] The law which originally established the TDC granted new rights to Tunisians including a right to learn the truth, a right for “national memory” to be preserved, and a right to “reparation for victims of violations.”[3] The Commission is the first truly independent[4] of its kind in the Muslim-Arab world, and Tunisian civil society, just like in the Arab Spring, is leading the way.

A fair distance from Tunisia, the hyphenated word “post-truth” was this week named the Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year. The post-truth era in America is a symptom of a narcissistic political culture – one that exists in the context of rapid modernization and social change. There is a perceived lack of meaning in secular American life as people feel their traditional values have lost ground to the expanded freedoms of others formerly repressed by laws and social norms. This is not new. Walter Lippmann wrote about the phenomenon in his 1929 book, A Preface to Morals.

The election of Donald Trump to the highest office in the land has thrown a gigantic wrench into the “normal” political rhetoric of the lame-duck period. Pundits, comedians, and experts alike have uttered the phrase “normalization” to the point of near-meaninglessness in only one week. This has been done in an attempt to continually remind people that Donald Trump is not only highly abnormal but that this is a man who we should not become comfortable with or excuse. Indeed, David Remnick wrote in the wee hours of November 9th that “Trump is vulgarity unbounded, a knowledge-free national leader.”[5] Yet, as argued in Slate by Katy Waldman, the normalization argument about Trump is being had “on his terms” due to its legitimization of his self-branding as an outsider.

I am outraged that such a horrendously unqualified and embarrassing character such as Donald Trump can be elected President. I am angry at the lack of policy debate in the campaign, at the arrogance of both nominees, at the paltry voter turn-out, and the plethora of unchallenged offensive comments and actions by the President-elect. Yet, as a student of the Middle East, I am simply afraid. I am afraid of a post-truth America: an America where one party not only controls all three branches of government, but is led by the Executive by a demagogic man who not only frequently lies as though it were his default setting, but also openly embraces “nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism.”[6] This is not a recipe for restraint, reflective thought, or deal-making.

There is a reason that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who came to power by replacing a democratically elected government in a coup-adjacent non-coup, was one of the first world leaders to call and congratulate Trump on his election victory. There is a reason that Trump spoke to Vladimir Putin on the phone before Theresa May, the Prime Minister of America’s closest ally. Authoritarians of a feather certainly seem to flock together[7], and if it walks like a duck…

In all seriousness, I am afraid of the specter of a Trump presidency because I have seen this movie before. We all watched in real-time as uprisings against authoritarianism and corruption spread throughout the Middle East. In Israel and the Palestinian territories I witnessed first-hand what an authoritarian state can do to systematically disenfranchise the “other,” justifying extreme measures (including imprisonment, the building of walls, and revoking of identification documents) in the name of security. But I don’t need to travel to Israel in order to describe what authoritarianism means to black Americans. I don’t need to travel to Palestine to describe the discrimination regularly experienced by my Muslim friends in America.

As scary as discrimination is for the minority groups Trump CHOSE to attack during the campaign, I am much more afraid of something that is not as easily seen or felt. Hannah Arendt, in her 1963 work, Eichmann in Jerusalem, coined the phrase “banality of evil.” It was thoughtlessness, not stupidity that “predisposed [Adolf Eichmann] to become one of the greatest criminals of [the Nazi] period.” This gets directly to the value of “truth.” Jamelle Bouie makes the controversial but critical argument that those who voted for Donald Trump “voted for a racist who promised racist outcomes.” Bouie emphasizes, rightly, that to argue that this is an unfair characterization of Trump supporters is to overlook the fact that regardless of how much you approve of his tax plans, or honestly desire change, “your frustration at being labeled a racist doesn’t justify or mitigate the moral weight of your political choice.” This is the crux of the banality of evil argument.

If a hypothetical Trump voter were examined by a psychologist and found to have no racial or discriminatory feelings whatsoever, the very fact that they still accepted all of his disturbing rhetoric and voted for him anyway makes them morally liable for the actions he carries out based on his campaign statements. There is no way around this. A vote is the highest endorsement you can make of another American. You are saying with that vote that this person deserves to have control of the most powerful military in human history. You don’t get to say you only voted for his tax plan. Bouie goes on later to note, in the footsteps of Arendt, that the “men who organized lynchings [of African Americans]…were not ghouls or monsters. They were ordinary.”

Not long ago, state-sanctioned oppression was “ordinary” in Tunisia. Authoritarian leadership has existed for a long time around the world. It is important to remember that the discrimination, oppression, and violence which so often accompany authoritarianism are not limited to Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, or modern day Syria. America is not as far removed from these places as many would like to think. While it is within reason to mock the word “post-truth” here in America, to some Tunisians, acknowledgment of the truth of their repression is an essential step on the path to obtaining justice. In the first day of public hearings, individuals spoke of police beatings and torture, but the message was one of sharing repressed truths for the sake of progressing human rights and justice.[8]

Truth matters in a democracy. It is important for everyone to share the same basic assumptions of the truth of what America is and represents. Brian Phillips put it best:

“One of the conditions of democratic resistance is having an accurate picture of what to resist. Confusion is an authoritarian tool; life under a strongman means not simply being lied to but being beset by contradiction and uncertainty until the line between truth and falsehood blurs and a kind of exhaustion settles over questions of fact. Politically speaking, precision is freedom.”

Indeed, authoritarianism creates the perfect storm for the banality of evil, and yes, fascism. Facts matter. And while facts can be either ignored or accepted by individuals, societal and historical truths inherently require a level of civic engagement and open discourse. While anti-Trump protests are commendable for their passion, the hashtag #notmypresident is a rallying cry of denial. But denial of a truth and denial of rights are not equivalent. Discrimination is in natural opposition to the truth because it represses one view while elevating another. And the President-elect is a liar who discriminates. This is objectively factual: we have these things called “cameras” which record peoples’ words.

In Trump’s America, one could reasonably assume that every issue will be debated intensely. Things will get heated; we will lose track of where exactly arguments began. I would like, for a moment, to consider a nursery rhyme as a metaphor. This is probably an awkward time to introduce a nursery rhyme. But this is post-truth America.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men

Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

There is evidence that these lines have changed over time, but you’ve probably never realized that it doesn’t explicitly refer to an egg, the image we generally associate with the rhyme. There is speculation that the rhyme was about King Richard III, but this is unsubstantiated, though he may have owned a horse named Wall (which, I think we can truthfully agree, is a rubbish name for a horse). The original rhyme’s third line was “Fourscore men and fourscore more,” which is a possible reference to a platoon, explaining why it later became “king’s.”[9] Yet, despite all of this uncertainty, anyone who grew up with this rhyme can identify a central truth: some things can’t be repaired when broken.

One might presume, say, that we could debate everything from the origin of the nursery rhyme, to the legitimacy of the alternative stanzas, to the shape of Humpty’s egg, or whether the nursery rhyme is a riddle or a story. In politics, it is the doubt created by an authoritarian figure such as Trump which will escalate and obfuscate the debate exponentially. The more you question the legitimacy of other peoples’ right to share your American experience, the more you erode the underlying truths that unite us. The difference between America and Tunisia is that while the US has meta-fights over the origins and nature of its problems, it doesn’t realize that it has already fallen off of the wall and shattered into one thousand pieces, exposing a rotten yolk. Tunisia may not have put itself fully back together again, but it has begun to realize that it is the chicken that shapes the egg, and that an authoritarian shell must be broken before truth and reconciliation are possible.

[1] Jidenna – “Long Live the Chief.”

[2] “Organic Law on Establishing and Organizing Transitional Justice.” Republic of Tunisia: Ministry of Human Rights and Transitional Justice. Unofficial translation by the International Center for Transitional Justice. Articles 2, 3.

[3] “Organic Law,” Republic of Tunisia, 2013, Articles 2, 5, 11.

[4] There was a truth commission in Morocco, but the King held considerable authority over it.

[5] http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/an-american-tragedy-2

[6] http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/an-american-tragedy-2

[7] See: Turkey and Russia: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-37045724

[8] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-tunisia-rights-idUSKBN13C2IF ; http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-38018272

[9] http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2013/04/the-origin-of-humpty-dumpty/

© Photo taken by author at Trump Tower protest in NYC, 12 Nov 2016.

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