One of the funniest lines in Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman’s hilarious and endearing new film adaptation of Jane Austen's Lady Susan, find the conniving Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsdale) lamenting that “facts are horrid things.” The film gleefully depicts the web of manipulation, spin, adaptation and doublespeak Lady Susan employs to get what she wants. To her, “facts” are pedestrian annoyances, momentary bourgeois impediments to the force of her will. They are easily overcome. Though decked out in the best corseted costumery available to Hollywood, Lady Susan feels like an utterly contemporary woman, a Kardashian with the elocution and vocabulary of Judi Dench. Her “facts are horrid things” philosophy is perfectly at home in 2016, a year in which morethanonecommentator has declared our world to be “post-truth,” courtesy of the impervious-to-facts success of Donald Trump’s campaign.
Donald Trump is the perfected form of our post-truth world, and his outrageous doublespeak is more unapologetic and obvious than most. But it’s nothing new. Politicians and the mainstream media have existed for some time now in the realm of post-facts, and the “truthiness” of the George W. Bush era has only become more entrenched. Journalists like Katie Couric blatantly distort the facts in their manipulative documentaries, but this again has been a long-entrenched practice in “documentary” filmmaking. Politicians like Hillary Clinton blatantly lie, repeatedly deny that they lie, and mobilize supporters to lie about the lies about the lies.
Meanwhile, the post-fact world has somehow convinced masses of people that one can simply declare their gender, race, or age to be whatever they want it to be, regardless of facts (those silly old things). In a recent video we saw how college students couldn’t even muster the courage (er, basic logic) to tell a short white guy that he was not a tall Chinese woman.
Part of the speed with which the post-facts, post-truth world has come upon us has to do with the Internet (though proto-Internet observers like Neil Postman and Jean Baudrillard certainly saw this coming). The infinite and indistinguishable glut of opinions, facts, spin and commentary online has a numbing effect that, in the end, leaves everyone less certain about everything. If facts can be marshaled to support any theory related to Making a Murderer, for example, then what’s the point of facts? If one can Google to find facts to back up any position they might take on a contested issue (and they can), then clearly “facts” have ceased to mean anything. Horrid things indeed. And useless.
What’s left in the rubble of crumbling certainty in our post-fact world? Brute power and survival, with little accommodation for the weak or the marginalized, for one thing. Whether it be the New York Times editorial board’s anti-semitic rant about Jews bringing their religion into Brooklyn swimming pools, Donald Trump’s blatant appeals to racism and “you're a loser and I'm a winner!” Social Darwinism, the fear-driven global rise of fascism, or the unabashed commerce of selling aborted baby body parts, the world is moving in a decidedly Hunger Games direction.
Meanwhile the nihilistic decadence of late-stage empire is on full display in the post-fact West. Evidence is everywhere, but consider the way we have lost the ability to evaluate art on the basis of goodness, truth or beauty. We can only evaluate it on the basis of randomness and #hashtags. Consider the recent glasses-on-the-floor stunt at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, or Tilda Swinton’s sleeping-in-a-glass-box stunt at MOMA (#TheMaybe). Or reflect upon the aimless indulgence of former Disney Channel child actor Shia LaBeouf, who spends his days walking around with a bag over his head, live-streaming himself watching a marathon of all of his own movies (#AllMyMovies) and, most recently, meandering the country by hitchhiking with his Twitter followers (#TakeMeAnywhere). All of these things make the news and millions of people pay attention to their gleefully nonsensical nihilism.
In the absence of facts or truth, consumerism and entertainment and on-demand diversion (Netflix binge-watching!) fill the hours of the Lady Susans and Lord LaBeoufs of the world, those who needn’t bother with Darwinian survival. And so they watch The Bachelorette and ponder the latest Game of Thrones drama, while 700 people die on refugee boats in the Mediterranean, Venezuela falls apart and America considers electing a man who brags about his win-loss record in lawsuits (450-38).
In such an environment, those who do believe in truth and commit to its knowability must fight hard to not also get sucked into the post-truth abyss. For when the empire collapses or the semiotic apocalypse occurs (whichever comes first), preservers of belief and tellers of truth (that silly old thing) will be the ones who help rebuild. One fact at a time.