Robert Darn­ton

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Robert Darn­ton

Fan­ta­sy­land: How Amer­ica Went Hay­wire: A 500-Year His­tory by Kurt An­der­sen

Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Hum­bug, Pla­gia­rists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News by Kevin Young Post-Truth by Lee McIntyre


How Amer­ica Went Hay­wire: A 500-Year His­tory by Kurt An­der­sen.

Ran­dom House, 462 pp., $30.00

Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Hum­bug, Pla­gia­rists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News by Kevin Young.

Gray­wolf, 560 pp., $30.00

Post-Truth by Lee McIntyre.

MIT Press, 216 pp., $15.95 (pa­per)

Fake news, al­ter­na­tive facts, and post­truth be­long to a po­lit­i­cal cli­mate change—that is, an over­heat­ing of the en­vi­ron­ment in which pol­i­tics takes place. To un­der­stand it re­quires some­thing more than fact-check­ing and the ex­po­sure of bunk, and to re­duce it to the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump is to un­der­es­ti­mate the ex­tent of the change. Trump em­bod­ies ten­den­cies that go far back into the past and that have seeped into pol­i­tics from Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture. Think P.T. Bar­num.

The most am­bi­tious of sev­eral at­tempts to put fake news and the Trump pres­i­dency in his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive are Fan­ta­sy­land by Kurt An­der­sen and Bunk by Kevin Young. To read them to­gether is to see two ta­lented in­tel­lec­tu­als cover the same ground, draw on sim­i­lar sources, and come up with in­trigu­ingly dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tions. An­der­sen, a for­mer ed­i­tor of The Har­vard Lam­poon, co­founder of Spy mag­a­zine, and colum­nist for The New Yorker, de­scribes his book in its sub­ti­tle as “a 500-year his­tory.” He does in­deed go back to Luther and Calvin, but they serve only as cur­tain-rais­ers for the Pil­grim Fathers and the main theme of his ar­gu­ment: re­li­gious fa­nati­cism. Un­der the il­lu­sion that they were God’s cho­sen peo­ple, the Pil­grims set out to pre­pare the way for the end of the world by es­tab­lish­ing a theo­cratic state in the wilder­ness. They wiped out the in­dige­nous peo­ple (imps of Satan), ex­pelled any­one who thought for her­self (Anne Hutchin­son), and con­strued pol­i­tics as the un­con­strained power of the elect (not the elected). Mas­sachusetts was Amer­ica’s first fan­ta­sy­land, and “Amer­ica was founded by a nutty re­li­gious cult.”

Hav­ing been founded by fa­nat­ics, An­der­sen ar­gues, the United States be­came the only coun­try in the West to spawn ex­trav­a­gant new re­li­gions: mil­lenar­ian cults de­rived from the Great Awak­en­ing of the early nine­teenth cen­tury, Mor­monism, Chris­tian Sci­ence, Scien­tol­ogy, Pen­te­costal­ism, and as­sorted sects whipped up by charis­mat­ics speak­ing in tongues and by evan­ge­lists preach­ing the im­mi­nent end of the world as sig­naled by the om­nipres­ence of Satan.

In the be­gin­ning, more­over, the Amer­i­can repub­lic suf­fered from a sec­ond fa­tal flaw, the En­light­en­ment faith of our Found­ing Fathers. They be­lieved in the in­di­vid­ual’s abil­ity to un­der­stand the world by ex­er­cis­ing rea­son. Ac­cord­ing to An­der­sen, this ra­tio­nal in­di­vid­u­al­ism in­ter­acted with the older Pu­ri­tan faith in the in­di­vid­ual’s in­ner knowl­edge of the ways of Prov­i­dence, and the re­sult was a pe­cu­liarly Amer­i­can con­vic­tion about ev­ery­one’s un­medi­ated ac­cess to re­al­ity, whether in the nat­u­ral world or the spir­i­tual world. If we be­lieve it, it must be true.

Faith in rea­son does in­deed in­volve an el­e­ment of be­lief, and cur­rents of ir­ra­tional­ity ran through the be­lief sys­tem that made up the En­light­en­ment, as schol­ars have stressed since the pub­li­ca­tion of Carl Becker’s The Heav­enly City of the Eigh­teenth-Cen­tury Philoso­phers (1932). But An­der­sen’s ac­count of what he calls “the En­light­en­ment idea” whizzes past so fast—in three scant pages— that it can­not sup­port the weight he puts on it. In fact, it il­lus­trates the dis­pro­por­tions that make his 500-year his­tory so prob­lem­atic. Hav­ing gal­loped through the eigh­teenth cen­tury, he pol­ishes off the nine­teenth cen­tury, Civil War and all, in 58 pages; al­lots an­other 54 pages to the pe­riod be­tween 1900 and 1960 (the two world wars barely get men­tioned); then fo­cuses heav­ily on the 1960s and 1970s (two decades spread over 63 pages); and de­votes the bulk of the book (205 pages) to the pe­riod from the 1980s to the present. It is in this last pe­riod that the most ex­trav­a­gant fan­tasies, in­clud­ing the be­lief in ex­trater­res­trial ab­duc­tions and the com­plic­ity of US of­fi­cials in the Septem­ber 11 at­tacks, have taken root. The pace and the tone of Fan­ta­sy­land make it dif­fi­cult to take the book se­ri­ously as his­tory, although An­der­sen seems to have read the work of se­ri­ous his­to­ri­ans. (He men­tions Ed­mund Mor­gan and Perry Miller, but as he in­cludes no foot­notes or bib­li­og­ra­phy, it is im­pos­si­ble to as­sess the ev­i­dence be­hind his as­ser­tions.) How­ever, the book is not ad­dressed to an aca­demic au­di­ence—and so much the bet­ter. It is writ­ten with gusto; it is very funny; and it suc­ceeds in ridi­cul­ing hog­wash, past and present.

An­der­sen takes de­light in se­lect­ing fig­ures hal­lowed by a sen­ti­men­tal vi­sion of our her­itage—Emer­son as a soul­ful tran­scen­den­tal­ist, Thoreau as a pas­toral ecol­o­gist—and zap­ping them. They fed “the pas­toral fan­tasy that Amer­i­can sub­ur­ban­ites and hip­pies and coun­try-home own­ers have reen­acted ever since.” Daniel Boone and Buf­falo Bill be­long in the same com­pany—su­percelebri­ties who pawned off a fic­tion­al­ized view of the West on a public ea­ger to imag­ine it­self as liv­ing at the edge of un­tamed na­ture. An­der­sen skew­ers Dwight Moody, “a shoe sales­man turned celebrity preacher,” as the most egre­gious in a long line of evan­ge­lists lead­ing to Billy Sun­day, Billy Gra­ham, and other preach­ers of “fan­tas­ti­cal Chris­tian­ity”: “He in­sisted that ev­ery sen­tence in the Bi­ble was lit­er­ally true, no more metaphor­i­cal than the Sears, Roe­buck cat­a­log.”

The hu­mor, how­ever, is deeply anachro­nis­tic: “Luther’s main com­plaint had been about the church’s sale of phony VIP passes to heaven”; “Two decades into the seven­teenth cen­tury, English Amer­ica was a fail­ing startup.” These one-lin­ers hit the spot, but they are cheap shots, be­cause anachro­nism re­duces the past to cat­e­gories of the present. It is the his­to­rian’s orig­i­nal sin, one to be com­bat­ted, even though it can never be en­tirely de­feated.

If it fails as his­tory, Fan­ta­sy­land suc­ceeds as an ef­fort to de­bunk bunk­ing, and that is an im­por­tant ser­vice, be­cause Amer­ica never had a Voltaire. We had Mark Twain, to be sure, and H. L. Mencken, who treated pol­i­tics as “a car­ni­val of bun­combe.” (“Bunkum” is de­rived from the va­pid or­a­tory used by a con­gress­man to court his con­stituents in Bun­combe County, North Carolina, in 1820.) An­der­sen writes as a mod­ern Mencken: no pity for the “booboisie,” no sym­pa­thy for re­li­gious clap­trap, no holds barred in com­bat­ting po­lit­i­cal pif­fle, be­cause the ring­mas­ter of the car­ni­val to­day is Don­ald Trump, whom An­der­sen presents as “em­pir­i­cal proof of my the­ory as it ap­plies to pol­i­tics.”

A large pro­por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion, An­der­sen in­sists, holds firmly to be­liefs that have been mapped and mea­sured sta­tis­ti­cally by ex­perts from sur­vey re­search cen­ters. For ex­am­ple:

Two-thirds of Amer­i­cans be­lieve that “angels and de­mons are ac­tive in the world.” At least half are ab­so­lutely cer­tain Heaven ex­ists, ruled over by a per­sonal God— not some vague force or univer­sal spirit but a guy. More than a third of us be­lieve not only that global warm­ing is no big deal but that it’s a hoax per­pe­trated by a con­spir­acy of sci­en­tists, gov­ern­ment, and jour­nal­ists .... A quar­ter be­lieve vac­cines cause autism and that Don­ald Trump won the pop­u­lar vote in the 2016 gen­eral elec­tion. A quar­ter be­lieve that our pre­vi­ous pres­i­dent was (or is?) the An­tichrist. A quar­ter be­lieve in witches.

So many Amer­i­cans have held such nutty ideas, An­der­sen ar­gues, that they have built a Son­der­weg, which leads di­rectly from Ply­mouth Rock to Fan­ta­sy­land.

A more bal­anced dis­cus­sion would have led An­der­sen to a more con­vinc­ing con­clu­sion. His­to­ri­ans cer­tainly may shape the past in any way they please. To ex­pand their story as it ap­proaches the present can work as a de­vice for es­tab­lish­ing per­spec­tive, like the van­ish­ing point in Re­nais­sance paint­ings. But do­ing so raises a dan­ger greater than anachro­nism, be­cause it makes the dis­tant past look like a pro­logue to the im­me­di­ate present. Trump’s elec­tion ad­min­is­tered a shock to the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, but it does not con­firm the the­sis that mys­ti­fi­ca­tion has con­quered the con­ti­nent and ex­tin­guished other el­e­ments in Amer­i­can cul­ture such as prag­ma­tism, horse sense, and street smarts.

One way to put An­der­sen’s ar­gu­ment it­self in per­spec­tive is to con­sult Kevin Young’s Bunk, which of­fers an al­ter­na­tive in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the same phe­nom­ena. A poet and di­rec­tor of the Schom­burg Cen­ter for Re­search in Black Cul­ture, a di­vi­sion in Har­lem of the New York Public Li­brary, Young or­ga­nizes his book around themes such as hoaxes, con­fi­dence games, forg­eries, pla­gia­rism, and lit­er­ary fraud. He il­lus­trates each theme with anec­dotes, tak­ing care to cite sources and doc­u­ment quo­ta­tions with foot­notes, so his vol­ume has more in­tel­lec­tual heft than An­der­sen’s.

It does not look that way, how­ever. Its catch­penny de­sign fails to do jus­tice to the depth of its ar­gu­ment, and the chap­ter head­ings and sub­head­ings pro­vide no guid­ance to its struc­ture. Thus the head­ing for Part Three, which is meant iron­i­cally to evoke bark­ers’ blar­ney:


(a sideshow! star­ring JT LeRoy with guest ap­pear­ances by Lance Arm­strong Dis­ney­land Paris Sy­bil

& Many Faces of Eve)

This for­mat may be ap­pro­pri­ate for a book about bunkum, cul­mi­nat­ing in “post-facts and fake news,” but it makes heavy de­mands on the reader, be­cause the anec­dotes come so thick and fast that it is dif­fi­cult to fol­low the logic that ties them to­gether.

Once in­side the “sideshow” on “mys­te­ria,” for ex­am­ple, the reader con­fronts the main ex­hibit, the no­to­ri­ous case of a fic­tional au­thor, JT LeRoy, in­vented by a real au­thor, Laura Al­bert, as part of an elab­o­rate hoax. The nar­ra­tive leads through a cham­ber of hor­rors— child abuse, parental pimp­ing—and the scenes shift so er­rat­i­cally that one can eas­ily get lost. First comes a mu­seum of fake Africana in Times Square, then Dis­ney­land Paris, and, in rapid suc­ces­sion, Lance Arm­strong’s cheat­ing in the Tour de France, late-grunge mu­sic in San Francisco, AIDS hys­te­ria, Jean-Martin Char­cot’s med­i­cal the­ater in the Salpêtrière Hos­pi­tal of Paris, mul­ti­ple per­son­al­ity dis­or­der, the re­cov­ered mem­ory move­ment (com­plete with fan­tasies of UFO ab­duc­tions and satanic rit­ual abuse), witch hunt­ing in a Cal­i­for­nia day-care cen­ter, the mur­der trial of Amanda Knox in Perugia, dou­ble-con­scious­ness as ex­em­pli­fied by an Amer­i­can hys­teric, Eve Black, and the African-Amer­i­can in­tel­lec­tual, W.E.B. Du Bois, the clichés of South­ern Gothic, and the grotesque as a lit­er­ary theme. It ends with LeRoy again and the un­mask­ing of the hoax as Al­bert is taken to court and con­victed of fraud.

The fak­ery is eas­ier to fol­low in the first half of the book, which de­vel­ops a his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive, be­gin­ning with Bar­num. At first, Young ex­plains, hoaxes were a form of en­ter­tain­ment, en­tered into with good hu­mor by a public that en­joyed be­ing did­dled. By the mid-nine­teenth cen­tury, the Fox sis­ters (phony com­mu­ni­ca­tion with spir­its by means of crack­ing joints in the feet) and Madame Blavatsky (pseu­doOri­en­tal theos­o­phy) shifted the em­pha­sis to spir­i­tu­al­ism. Bar­numesque bunkum con­tin­ued well into the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, but it gave way to self-fab­ri­cated phonies: fake In­di­ans, fake refugees from ab­duc­tions by aliens, and fake Holo­caust sur­vivors. From the be­gin­ning, hoaxes were spread by the mass me­dia. In 1835, the New York Sun re­ported that hu­manoid crea­tures had been sighted on the moon by Sir John Her­schel with his fa­mous tele­scope. Read­ers, who did not ex­pect much truth from the new penny press, were duped and then amused. In 1938, when Or­son Welles an­nounced an in­va­sion from Mars on CBS ra­dio, the public pan­icked. Hoax­ing had be­come noir. Its tone, as traced by Young, evolved from hu­mor to hor­ror, and its con­tent was laced with racism. Bar­num’s first and most fa­mous ex­hibit was Joice Heth, a black woman he may have bought, who pretended to be Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton’s nurse­maid, 161 years old in 1835. Later ex­hibits in­cluded “What is It?,” an African-Amer­i­can man dressed in an­i­mal hides and pre­sented as the miss­ing link in the chain of evo­lu­tion. The 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago took up the racist theme by fea­tur­ing “can­ni­bal­is­tic Samoans,” a “Da­homey Vil­lage” with sixty-nine sup­posed “na­tive war­riors,” and a woman paid to pose as a real-life Aunt Jemima. The fak­ery con­tin­ued through the World’s Fair of 1933 in Chicago, where a black per­former decked out in os­trich feathers and speak­ing gib­ber­ish pretended to be an African chief named Wu Foo.

Young dis­sects these ex­am­ples of freaks and fakes to demon­strate the racism in­her­ent in Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture. It ex­tends to ex­hi­bi­tions of fake In­di­ans, Asians, and even whites. Bar­num’s “Cir­cas­sian Beauty,” a white woman sup­pos­edly res­cued from slav­ery in the Cau­ca­sus re­gion, was meant to evoke the ori­gin and essence of the Cau­casian race, an­other fic­tion. The his­tory of hoax­ing ex­poses un­com­fort­able truths about Amer­i­can so­ci­ety:

Why are all these white folks hoax­ing about all these brown, yel­low, and black ones? We have few other ways to say just how Amer­i­cans re­main di­vided, not only from each other but also schiz­o­phrenic about truth and race and de­tached from re­al­ity even though, or es­pe­cially be­cause, we re­fash­ion it daily.

The main hoaxes from about 2000 dis­cussed by Young ap­peared in print—in news­pa­pers, nov­els, short sto­ries, and po­ems, con­tin­u­ally blur­ring the line that once had di­vided fact from fic­tion. Young con­cen­trates on the fake news of three re­porters: Stephen Glass, who wrote at least two dozen fab­ri­cated pieces for The New Repub­lic from 1996 to 1998; Michael Finkel, who con­cocted a pro­file of a teenage slave in West Africa that ap­peared as a cover story in The New York Times Mag­a­zine in 2001; and Jayson Blair, who man­u­fac­tured thirty-six faked sto­ries for the Times, in­clud­ing one about sniper mur­ders along the D.C. Belt­way in 2002. Af­ter be­ing ex­posed, all three jour­nal­ists com­pounded their fraud with self-jus­ti­fy­ing, self-pity­ing, semi­au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal books: Glass’s The Fab­u­list (2003), Blair’s Burn­ing Down My Mas­ter’s House (2004), and Finkel’s True Story: Mur­der, Mem­oir, Mea Culpa (2005).

Young goes over this fak­ery at great length, not sim­ply to re­veal the ori­gins of fake news to­day but to demon­strate some­thing deeper, which he calls a “nar­ra­tive cri­sis.” It is a dou­ble vi­o­la­tion of the truth, first as a lie about ex­pe­ri­ences en­dured by real peo­ple in real life, and sec­ond as a be­trayal of the real­i­ties con­veyed by lit­er­ary fic­tion. Young writes from the per­spec­tive of his vo­ca­tion as a poet and with a com­mit­ment to what can be un­der­stood as po­etic truth. He there­fore con­demns lit­er­ary pla­gia­rism as the most poi­sonous kind of hoax­ing. Bunk con­cludes with a coda, “The Age of Eu­phemism.” Although “eu­phemism” seems weak as a de­scrip­tion of the fakes that pass for truth to­day—no­tably “al­ter­na­tive facts” as a cover-up for ly­ing—it gets across the dis­tor­tion of re­al­ity foisted on the public by the “mod­ern in­her­i­tor to P.T. Bar­num,” Don­ald Trump: “Trump too ex­ploits deep-seated so­cial di­vi­sions, ones that, de­spair­ingly, echo the very same ones of race and dif­fer­ence on which the his­tory of the hoax has long re­lied.” Young’s con­clu­sion matches An­der­sen’s. Both see Trump as a prod­uct of re­al­ity tele­vi­sion whose un­der­stand­ing of the world de­rives from the long hours he spends watch­ing TV, es­pe­cially Fox News. What An­der­sen de­scribes as Fan­ta­sy­land, Young calls Nev­er­land. It’s the same place, and Trump is in charge of it.

Although they come to the same con­clu­sion and cite many of the same episodes, the two au­thors de­velop dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tions. To An­der­sen, the driv­ing force be­hind the mud­dy­ing of re­al­ity is re­li­gios­ity; to Young, it is racism. I find Young more con­vinc­ing, be­cause just as slav­ery ex­isted ev­ery­where in the orig­i­nal colonies, so do racist at­ti­tudes ex­tend through­out the coun­try, whereas while the most ex­trav­a­gant forms of re­li­gious be­liefs de­vel­oped in cer­tain ar­eas, such as the “burned-over dis­trict” of up­state New York, they have not pen­e­trated the blue states as thor­oughly as the red.

Young, like An­der­sen, ac­cepts the no­tion of Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism. Although they cite many ex­am­ples of

ab­surd be­liefs held only in the United States, they write as if col­lec­tive delu­sions have not up­set his­tory else­where in the world. The most ex­trav­a­gant episodes in Amer­ica’s fan­ta­sy­land look mild when com­pared with the Chil­dren’s Cru­sade of 1212, led by wan­der­ing bands of the poor (not chil­dren), whipped up by chil­ias­tic fan­tasies; the Great Fear of 1789, when hordes of French peas­ants sacked châteaux in or­der to save them­selves from an imag­ined in­va­sion of brig­ands; and the Taip­ing Re­bel­lion of 1850–1864, which sought to rid China of the rul­ing Manchu dy­nasty and to in­stall the Heav­enly King­dom of Peace (at a cost of at least 20 mil­lion lives) through an up­ris­ing led by a vi­sion­ary who pro­claimed him­self to be the younger brother of Je­sus Christ. All these events were set off by mis­in­for­ma­tion that could be called fake news.

Fake news has an even longer his­tory than that imag­ined by An­der­sen and Young. In my own view, it goes back to an­tiq­uity in the West, and it be­came an el­e­ment in po­lit­i­cal con­flicts by the time of the Re­nais­sance.1 The first great faker of news was Pi­etro Aretino, who got his start by com­pos­ing li­belous son­nets about the can­di­dates in the pa­pal elec­tion of 1522 and past­ing them on the bust of a char­ac­ter known as “Pasquino,” which served as a bul­letin board near the Pi­azza Navona in Rome. “Pasquinades” be­came a pop­u­lar

1See my “The True His­tory of Fake News,” NYR Daily, Fe­bru­ary 13, 2017. genre, and Aretino had many im­i­ta­tors right up to eigh­teenth-cen­tury Paris. By then news­men (nou­vel­listes) spread gos­sip, much of it false, some of it true, through clan­des­tine gazettes and books, in­clud­ing The Mod­ern Aretino (L’Ar­rétin mod­erne), an un­der­ground best seller.

In Lon­don, “para­graph men” out­did the Aretinos of Paris in fab­ri­cat­ing news. They picked up in­for­ma­tion in cof­fee houses, re­duced it to a para­graph, and con­signed it, usu­ally for a fee, to com­pos­i­tors who laid out the para­graphs, one af­ter the other, in the dense col­umns of type used to print Lon­don’s nu­mer­ous news­pa­pers. In the 1770s a new kind of scan­dal sheet spe­cial­ized in para­graphs about the pri­vate lives of public fig­ures. Two priests turned re­porters, “the Rev­erend Bruiser” (Henry Bate) and “Dr. Viper” (Wil­liam Jackson), bat­tled for mar­ket share by churn­ing out ar­ti­cles that make to­day’s tabloids look mod­er­ate. It never oc­curred to any­one that news should be neu­tral or ob­jec­tive. The ideal of ob­jec­tiv­ity did not de­velop un­til the sec­ond half of the nine­teenth cen­tury with “pa­pers of record” like The New York Times and The Times of Lon­don. They based their ap­peal on a new kind of pro­fes­sion­al­ism, one that as­pired to pro­vide re­li­able re­port­ing and to re­ject bla­tant par­ti­san­ship. A his­tor­i­cal view of fake news should be­gin by con­sid­er­ing the chang­ing con­cept of news it­self, an as­pect of the sub­ject that is not con­sid­ered by An­der­sen and Young. News is not what hap­pened but a story about what hap­pened, and by its na­ture it uses nar­ra­tive con­ven­tions. As the con­ven­tions changed, so did the sto­ries that read­ers con­sumed in news­pa­pers. And far from be­ing self­evi­dent, the tech­niques of sto­ry­telling had to be as­sim­i­lated by copy boys as­pir­ing to be­come re­porters through on­the-job train­ing.

How do you turn legwork into a story af­ter cov­er­ing a bank rob­bery or a mur­der? If the night city ed­i­tor tells you af­ter you re­turn from the scene of the crime, “800 words,” what words will you choose and what will they look like when they ap­pear in the pa­per next morn­ing? Most read­ers have no idea of the ar­bi­trary codes and pro­fes­sional skills that shape to­day’s ac­count of what hap­pened yes­ter­day.

When I un­der­went my own vo­ca­tional train­ing at The Ne­wark StarLedger in 1956, I did the ba­sic legwork for the vet­eran re­porters who spent the day play­ing poker in the news­room of po­lice head­quar­ters. Ev­ery half-hour, I would col­lect the “squeal sheets,” car­bon copies of typed records of ev­ery com­plaint phoned in to the lieu­tenant on duty. I would read through the squeal sheets in the hope of find­ing some­thing that might serve as news, and when I found an item that I thought looked promis­ing, I would ask the poker play­ers if it war­ranted fol­low­ing up. Af­ter con­tin­u­ous “no”s, I re­al­ized that I had not been born with a nose for news.

One day I found a squeal sheet that seemed so promis­ing—rape, mur­der, and other hor­rors—that I went straight to the homi­cide depart­ment in­stead of stop­ping off first at the poker game. When I pre­sented it to the lieu­tenant, he took a quick look and re­turned it to me in dis­gust. “This isn’t news, kid,” he said, point­ing to the let­ter B in the paren­the­ses af­ter the names of the vic­tim and the sus­pect. I hadn’t no­ticed that names al­ways were fol­lowed by a B or a W. Only then did it oc­cur to me that news in Ne­wark did not hap­pen to blacks.

That les­son led me to ap­pre­ci­ate Kevin Young’s ac­count of the racism that per­me­ates pop­u­lar cul­ture, not just on the sur­face but at a level be­low col­lec­tive con­scious­ness. To­day, news does not ap­pear pri­mar­ily in news­pa­pers, whose cir­cu­la­tion and rev­enue have dropped dras­ti­cally since the ad­vent of the In­ter­net, usu­ally iden­ti­fied with the in­ven­tion of the World Wide Web by Tim Bern­ers-Lee in 1990. News now cir­cu­lates through Face­book, YouTube, and Twit­ter, and much of it is pro­duced by peo­ple who have no pro­fes­sional train­ing and who of­ten make it up. Beqa Latsabidze, a stu­dent in Tbil­isi, Ge­or­gia, made thou­sands of dol­lars by post­ing fab­ri­cated sto­ries that dam­aged Hil­lary Clin­ton and fa­vored Don­ald Trump— no­tably a bo­gus an­nounce­ment that Mex­ico would close its bor­der to the US if Trump won the elec­tion.

The im­por­tance of the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion for the pro­lif­er­a­tion of fake news and un­truth in gen­eral is a main theme of an­other re­cent book on the sub­ject, Post-Truth by Lee McIntyre, a re­search fel­low at the Cen­ter for Phi­los­o­phy and His­tory of Sci­ence at Bos­ton Univer­sity. By “post-truth”—a ne­ol­o­gism cho­sen as the “word of the year” by the Ox­ford dic­tio­nar­ies in Novem­ber 2016—McIntyre means the be­lief that an idea is true de­spite the coun­terev­i­dence of ver­i­fi­able facts and the tes­ti­mony of ex­perts who have stud­ied the sub­ject. He ap­proaches this theme through the his­tory of sci­ence—or, rather, of “sci­ence de­nial.”

For the last sev­eral decades, McIntyre ar­gues, cor­po­ra­tions have defended their in­ter­ests by spread­ing doubts about the sci­en­tific ev­i­dence that threat­ened them. The tobacco in­dus­try fought the no­tion that smok­ing caused can­cer. The oil in­dus­try con­tested the con­sen­sus among sci­en­tists that hu­man be­hav­ior has pro­duced cli­mate change. And cor­po­rate-funded lob­bies pro­moted un­truths about many po­lit­i­cal is­sues: “cli­mate change, guns, im­mi­gra­tion, health care, the na­tional debt, voter re­form, and gay mar­riage.” Un­truths fed into a thick­en­ing mi­asma of post-truth, be­cause the public was per­suaded to dis­count the find­ings of ex­perts.

Such delu­sions can be ex­plained in part, McIntyre ar­gues, by a syn­drome of con­fir­ma­tion bias stud­ied by psy­chol­o­gists. We se­lect ev­i­dence that con­firms our be­liefs and fil­ter out in­for­ma­tion that un­der­cuts the views of our peer group. In this re­spect, his ar­gu­ment runs par­al­lel to that of an­other re­cent book, The Death of Ex­per­tise by Tom Ni­chols.2 Ni­chols traces the wide­spread con­vic­tion among or­di­nary cit­i­zens that their opin­ion is as good as any­one else’s to the dis­trust of ex­perts in sci­ence, medicine, ed­u­ca­tion, and the pro­fes­sional civil ser­vice. Ac­cord­ing to McIntyre, the change that did the most to cre­ate the cur­rent post-truth en­vi­ron­ment is the rise of so­cial me­dia. He notes that 44 per­cent of the adult pop­u­la­tion gets its news from Face­book (62 per­cent from so­cial me­dia in gen­eral) and that Face­book uses al­go­rithms to feed us news that we will like. As a re­sult, Amer­i­cans live in­creas­ingly in “news si­los,” learn­ing about the out­side world from in­sider cir­cuits that con­nect “friends” and like-minded con­sumers. They cease to be ex­posed to facts that do not fit their pre­con­cep­tions, and there­fore they be­come vul­ner­a­ble to hack­ers who use click­bait to feed them in­for­ma­tion that fa­vors some po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates and eco­nomic in­ter­ests over oth­ers.

One re­sult is Don­ald Trump. He de­nounces news he dis­likes as fake, but he rode into of­fice on the wave of fake news that flooded the In­ter­net from sources in East­ern Europe, no­tably Rus­sia, dur­ing the elec­tion cam­paign. We may never know whether Trump owes his vic­tory to fak­ery, but, McIntyre in­sists, we must learn to rec­og­nize the fab­ri­cated char­ac­ter of what passes for re­al­ity in a power sys­tem where facts do not mat­ter and bunk can­not be proven false.

Although McIntyre’s route to this con­clu­sion is shorter than those taken by An­der­sen and Young, he ar­rives at the same place. All three of them quote Stephen Col­bert on “truthi­ness”—the con­vic­tion that what you feel to be true must be the truth. All three in­voke a fa­mous re­mark by Daniel Pa­trick Moyni­han: “You are en­ti­tled to your own opin­ion, but not your own facts.” They take a stand on ground that An­der­sen de­scribes as “ra­tio­nal­ism and rea­son­able­ness.” And the con­ver­gence of their views points to a dan­ger greater than Trump. McIntyre cites Ti­mothy Sny­der, a his­to­rian of the Holo­caust: “Post-truth is pre-fas­cism.”

Ox­ford Univer­sity Press, 2017.

A litho­graph de­pict­ing the an­gel Moroni de­liv­er­ing the golden plates of the Book of Mor­mon to Joseph Smith in west­ern New York, 1827

Rush Lim­baugh, 1995

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