In 1946, George Orwell wrote a piece about the unfortunate human habit of failing or refusing to see what plainly lay before one’s face. Whether through conscious mendacity, or intellectual laziness, or the universal tendency to euphemism, or because facing the truth would be too personally unsettling, people espouse beliefs blatantly at odds with the evidence. Orwell titled his essay “In Front of Your Nose.”
Several of the examples he cited there and in much of his postwar writing arose from the fact that what was obvious to any unbiased observer— that Britain’s global status had diminished and political decision-making must take that into account—was intolerable; therefore it had to be ignored, contradicted, or euphemized.
Seven decades on, this attitude is still endemic to Britain: witness Monty Pythonesque upper-class twits like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg (the UK appears to have an inexhaustible supply of these walking caricatures) breezily opining that Brexit will teach all those bloody foreigners on the wrong side of the Channel.
"This state of affairs is unprecedented. While the Harding administration scored high in the league tables of corruption, it lacked the unrelenting, feral malice of Trump and his gang. And although Nixon was no stranger to malice, he wouldn’t confuse the Baltics with the Balkans."
The world headquarters of the syndrome Orwell identified seems, however, to have moved across the North Atlantic. This is most clearly evident from the pronouncements of Donald Trump, his cabinet, and his assorted hangers-on and sycophants. Every statement issuing from them is a riot of illogic, contradiction, distraction and appeals to authority, emotion, or fear—all designed to camouflage the intolerable fact that Trump’s administration is essentially a syndicate dedicated to stealing anything that isn’t nailed down when it’s not too busy rigging the system on behalf of its cronies and campaign donors.
This state of affairs is unprecedented. While the Harding administration scored high in the league tables of corruption, it lacked the unrelenting, feral malice of Trump and his gang. And although Nixon was no stranger to malice, he wouldn’t confuse the Baltics with the Balkans.
But as horrific as Trump’s systematic perversion of reality is, it is a symptom of the problem, not the underlying problem. A distorting misrepresentation of evident facts, deliberate or unconscious, already suffused public life in America. It preceded Trump, paved the way for his ascent, and entrenches the misrule of the president and his cohorts. It is a “see no evil” mindset that always finds the most benign interpretation when facts and evidence suggest otherwise.
If we read The Washington Post, we see the serial fabulist and pillar of the Right Wing Media-Entertainment Complex, Jerome Corsi, identified as a “conspiracy theorist.” Is he really? Does he sincerely hold theories about certain ideas in the same manner that Albert Einstein was a relativity theorist? Or is he just making it up?
And is “conspiracy” the right word? According to the U.S. Code, anytime two or more people act in concert to commit a criminal act, it is a conspiracy. Conspiracies do happen.
"As horrific as Trump’s systematic perversion of reality is, it is a symptom of the problem, not the underlying problem."
Reviewing Corsi’s output, it is difficult to find anything original that he asserts to be true, from the Swiftboat saga to Obama’s Kenyan birth. It is possible that his deluded readers might believe his writing, but it strains credulity to think that a person making the effort to fabricate such tales and give them a patina of plausibility with meretricious footnotes doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing.
So why doesn’t the press plainly label what lies in front of their noses? Why isn’t Corsi identified as a “retailer of political disinformation” or a “fake conspiracy-monger” and given the same credence as any troll at the Russian Internet Research Agency? Is it intellectual laziness or fear of stating the truth that causes the imprecision?
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A similar dynamic has been at work for years with respect to the topic of anthropogenic climate change. “Climate change skeptic” is the preferred label for a James Inhofe, or a Donald Trump, or an S. Fred Singer. But this tortures the ordinary meaning of the English language. Skeptics are open-minded people who are sincere about not being convinced by the available evidence for a phenomenon. But that does not mean a knee jerk, dogmatic opposition to the possibility that the phenomenon exists: if the required evidence is forthcoming, they will change their minds.
Trump has never been sincere about anything in his life other than his own ambition. His “skepticism” is actually an awareness of the fossil fuel interests that fund him and the Republican Party, as well as his (probably unfounded) belief that the unemployed coal miners who voted for him can be rewarded with jobs in the mines if the climate issue can be made to go away.
Inhofe’s motives have been similar in terms of campaign funding, combined with his misreading of the Bible to suggest that only God, not humans, can initiate climate change.
Singer (as with many of his likeminded colleagues) is a product of the vast infrastructure of conservative foundations, think tanks, and institutes that exist to give crackpot ideas a veneer of respectability. He is an “expert” for hire: if the corporate interests which fund these pseudo-academic boiler rooms demand a potted response on a science-y topic, Singer will deliver, in the same way that Stephen Moore, working for the Koch-funded Club for Growth, for years cranked out “research” claiming that tax cuts for the rich would cause skyrocketing growth and pay for themselves. The fact that Singer shilled for Big Tobacco during the 1990s, denying a link between second-hand smoke and cancer, hardly increases his credentials as an independent truth-seeker.
Yet the media continue to apply the label of skeptic, giving genuine rational skepticism a bad name and imputing more credibility than warranted. In that case, what shall we call the lovable cranks who are always with us, the eccentrics who claim the moon landings were faked but aliens are real and periodically abducting us? Moon landing skeptics?
The tendency to avoid calling things by their real name also has manifested itself in the case of the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. Trump’s kid glove handling of the Saudi monarchy, a complete reversal of his customary tough-guy act, has set the foreign policy commentariat to devise a superficially plausible but false dichotomy, like this one. Trump’s fawning over Mohammed bin Salman may look distasteful, true, but our economic and strategic stakes in the enduring US-Saudi relationship are so monumental, what else could the guy do? We must understand, they lecture, that there is a delicate balance between human rights-oriented idealism and gimlet-eyed Realpolitik, and, yes, it’s too bad what happened to Khashoggi, but, hey, our pension funds own Boeing stock, for Pete’s sake!
This interpretation vastly overstates the economic dependence of America on Saudi Arabia; the United States now produces more oil than the kingdom and OPEC’s pricing power has much declined. The Saudis are a strategic necessity for us only if we want to maintain unremitting hostility to Iran, a policy that sensible people reject.
The answer to the president’s servility lies in the fact that for Trump, like the generation of 1968, the personal is political. His own financial ties with the Saudis are deep. They regularly stage events at the Trump hotel in Washington, spending $270,000 there last year. They also own an entire floor of Trump World Tower in New York. In 2016, during the campaign, Trump registered eight companies connected to Saudi Arabia in anticipation of business to come. So it doesn’t pay to cast aspersions at Mohammed bin Salman and his loyal subjects.
Those who espouse the Realpolitik hypothesis are either naïve, or they think their audience is naïve. The real answer, as Orwell would have said, lies in front of your nose.