Fake Facts from and for all

9 March 2019

Fake facts are deplorable, no question. But they have been inundating societies, and not only American, long before Donald Trump came along—even if he does take political theatre to a new level. Recall the fake facts of past elections; count the advertisements today that lie by omission if not commission, including those that sell politicians like detergents; consider what some of the TV networks and tabloids have been doing for years, now joined by more brazen blogs.

Who these days doesn’t play loose and easy with the facts, from celebrities who endorse products they don’t use, and physicians who dismiss “alternate” forms of treatment they don’t understand, to economists who claim to have won a Nobel Prize that doesn’t exist? (Economists at the National Bank of Sweden created that prize for other economists. Check out “Not a Nobel Prize” buried in nobelprize.org.)

In his New York Times column of 8 February 2018, Thomas Friedman described the United States as “the world’s strongest guardian of truth, science and democratic norms.” Excuse me Mr. Friedman, did you not notice Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs, Iraq, Pinochet’s Chile, incursions into so many countries of Latin America and elsewhere, etc. Talk about selective memory. Friedman is hardly alone, even among liberal American commentators (Madeline Albright, George Soros), in continuing to promote this image of noble America, as if there has never also been a nasty America.

In actual fact—so to speak—the real winner of the fake facts sweepstakes has to be, not Donald Trump of America, but Vladimir Putin of Russia. He saw a huge opening in the fragmentation of American society and used the country’s own social media to ram fake facts straight through it.

How could such a thing have happened? Might the answer lie in America’s great strength as well as its debilitating weakness: an inclination to favor personal action over mutual reflection? Too often, reflection gets lost in the sheer pace and pressure of American life, the relentlessness of change in this mass and mobile society. David Brooks wrote in his New York Times column of 15 October 2018 about the “cult conformity” that has displaced “individual thought” in America. Join the kindred club that promotes the facts you prefer—Trump, Sanders, anti-globalization, pro-life, whatever—and once there, don’t work it out, let alone think it through: fight it out.

This reluctance to reflect can be found from “Make America great again” for the excluded, and “Fix capitalism to fix society” for the entitled, to “If freedom is to prevail…American leadership is urgently required” for the establishment (Madeleine Albright in the New York Times, 6 April 2018). All this while freedom falters, capitalism breaks, and leadership crumbles. Here we have, not the wisdom of crowds, but the clamor of groupthink—or, we can say, fakethink. Let’s drown it in that swamp.


© Henry Mintzberg 2019. For his desperate effort to help reverse this, see Rebalancing Society…radical renewal beyond left, right, and center (free download). The book can also be ordered online here.

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