Monday, April 25, 2016

When Might is Knowledge, Violence can not be Far Behind

Boris Schumatsky/BS photo
Boris Schumatsky was born in the Soviet Union in 1965. After the disintegration of the Soviet empire in 1989 he moved to Berlin where he works as a journalist and post-modern novelist. I don’t know what post-modern means: apparently it has something to do with narrative techniques that employ fragmentation, paradox, an unreliable narrator, and eschewing neat resolutions. They say it’s a style that mostly arose after World War II.

Foucault (1926-1984) comes into it. Foucault, a French philosopher, writer, and social critic of the mid 20th century, wrote about the relationship between power and knowledge, and how power and knowledge are used as a form of social control through societal institutions.

And when we speak of power and knowledge and control through societal institutions, we think politics, media, propaganda campaigns, and compromised public intellectuals. And stealing from Tina Turner, we might ask: “What’s truth got to do with it; what’s truth but a second hand emotion?”

Yesterday Schumatsky published an essay in the Neue Zurcher Zeitung, about The Crisis of Truth [in German]. Standing in the center of the EU (Germany), he writes: we thought we were set free from the hobbles of national identity, sexual identity, and societal structures, and yet everywhere we look there are millions of people who willingly submit to collective fictions and falsehoods. We perceive social inequalities and blame sinister bankers. We fear the effects of globalization and we blame refugees and immigrants.

In Rousseau’s immortal phrase: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” In Schumatsky's sense this would mean the freedom of Truth and the chains of Untruth.

There is a war on Truth, says Schumatsky. We came to see Truth as tyrannical. We looked at claims of Truth as cloaked in the mantle of repression. We have gone further. We came to see even our conception of reality as restricting and oppressive. Think of global warming deniers. Think of Jim Imhofe throwing a snowball in Congress to prove global warming does not exist. “There are no facts, only interpretations” Friedrich Nietzche once said. But if we adopt this attitude in politics, says Schumatsky, the result is that only lies count. Lies and manipulations. Schumatsky directs us to Berlusconi, the former Prime Minister of Italy, who had a knack for turning untruths into a joke. “This is Mubarak’s daughter,” he said about an underage play-companion. The secret for this working, says Schumatsky, is everyone must be in on the joke. “The great man is under attack, and look, not only did he defend himself, he did so with wit and elegance!” So said the press; and so thought significant segments of the public. 

By refusing to distinguish between facts and lies we participate in this assault on Truth, says Schumatsky. We are co-conspirators. Facts are unclear; they are inconvenient. And so we willingly submit to simple stories and lies.

Go no further than your closest Rush Limbaugh broadcast. The rabidly conservative Limbaugh has been the leading talk show broadcaster since 1991 with more than 13 million weekly listeners. He is a master at spreading lies. His listeners are not interested in Truth. By listening and repeating talking points his listeners participate in the assault on Truth. Go no further than the Israeli campaign of Hasbara. It spreads untruths, from the Six Day War, to the Peace process, to Palestinian incitement. Many simple stories; many lies. Receptive audiences lap this up.

This co-conspiratorial attitude by the electorate results in a steady watering down of political truths. It debases our politics. The inevitable upshot, according to Foucault (suggests Schumatsky), is the reduction of knowledge to might. It turns political reasoning to caricature. Might is right. We have to look no further than to Mitch McConnell's rule of the U.S. Senate. And when knowledge is reduced to might, violence cannot be far behind.

Schumatsky directs us to shallow reefs in the South China Sea which suddenly are islands sprouting Chinese airfields. The Chinese public “knows” that these Islands are Chinese islands. Just like the Russian public “knows” the Crimean peninsula to be “Russian:” might is knowledge.

And we behold Donald Trump’s “Truth” that Latin American immigrants are “rapists and murderers” and we must therefore keep them out with a wall along the Southern border; and we listen to ‘Lyin’ Ted’s’ “Truth” that 12 million undocumented workers will be rounded up and deported; and we think if such knowledge ever comes to power, violence cannot be far behind.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles.

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