In a 1943 essay George Orwell wrote:
What is peculiar to our age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written. In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled with the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.” (Kakutani, 2018).
Writing as he did at a time when Europe was in mortal peril from the eliminationist nature of one totalitarian system and when a less bloody but no less dehumanising form would cast a dark shadow behind that figurative and later only too real Iron Curtain which would run from Stettin on the Baltic Sea to Trieste on the Adriatic, Orwell’s words are so prescient now as we enter the third decade of the 21st century. We live in an age when lying has become a perverse art and has been refined to an astonishing technological degree by malevolent agents such as the cyber-warriors of Vladimir Putin’s St Petersburg Internet Research Agency troll divisions and predatory digital buccaneers such as Cambridge Analytica.
We live in an age when the Goebbels tactic of telling a lie so often that it becomes part of the currency of everyday conversation was deployed so effectively by the Vote Leave side in the UK’s EU referendum campaign in 2016. We live in a time when aides to US President Trump defend his brazen lying by inventing a concept and form that not even Orwell’s ingenuity could come up with – ‘alternative facts’.
We live in an era when two developments with such emancipatory potential – the postmodern movements in academic language and literature departments allied to the opening of the canon to the forces of multiculturalism and the advance of the reach of the Internet – have unwittingly delivered much of humanity into a near abyss of populist nativist demagoguery. It is not too fanciful to state that the ‘everything goes’ culture spawned by the relativism of postmodernist gurus and the rejection of the narratives of Enlightenment and expertise and the parallel legitimation of conspiracism, false science and the popular acceptability of anti-politician sentiment (‘they are all the same; all in it for themselves; just corporate stooges etc ad nauseam) poses an existential threat to democracy as we know it.
Orwell went on:
It is just this common basis of agreement, with its implication that humans are all one species of animal, that totalitarianism destroys. Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as ‘the truth’ exists. There is, for instance, no such thing as ‘Science’. There is only ‘German Science’, ‘Jewish Science’, etc. (Kakutani: p.55).
Had he lived longer, Orwell would also have recognised and commented on the absence of independently constituted subjects or bodies of knowledge such as legality in the Soviet bloc. There was only Socialist Legality; there was no stand-alone concept of citizenship; only a duty on educators to raise “socialist” citizens. Adoption decisions were made in the German Democratic Republic (the very use of the word “democratic” in the title of these states takes irony to a higher plane arguably; there was a democracy of death of sorts in Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea utopia) on the basis would be raised in families with good socialist values. In China there was/is no objective category of morality – just socialist morality. The legacy of “scientific socialism” in the Soviet Union were the catastrophic famines in the Ukraine, the Chernobyl disaster and the disappearance of Lake Baikal and other water sources to enable breakneck state capital accumulation through Five Year Plan industrialisation. The refashioning of human beings as Homo Sovieticus or the neoliberal persona of Homo Economicus represents the essence of totalising ideologies; the stripping of the soul or inner beings of humans and their autonomous search for their truths.
Fast forward nearly eight decades from Orwell’s warning from history to the grotesque vista of the freely elected President of the US proclaiming that there is no objective virus or a scientifically identified coronavirus but a “Chinese” virus. This is a president who undoubtedly told such blatant mistruths about the size of the crowd at his inauguration led his aide, Kellyanne Conway, to coin the 1984esque term “alternative facts” to legitimise them. This is a president who, it is not too fanciful to suggest would argue that black is white. But he is not psychotic, but in more judgemental but accurate terms, is a liar and a vain narcissist exceeded perhaps only by his protégé, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil who after being told of Brazil’s record Covid-19 death toll of 474 on Tuesday 28th April shrugged the news of saying “So what” and that “My name’s Messiah. (in reference to his second name, Messias) But I cannot work miracles.”
To understand how the United States and other democracies to have fallen into the hands of lying populist demagogues have reached this nadir, it is necessary to interrogate what looks on the surface an unlikely incubator for such a latter-day right-wing phenomenon – the creed of postmodernism which was born in the left-wing, anti-elitist and occidentalist environs of academia in the 1960s.
Postmodernism is a broad term which arrived in American universities in the second half of the 20th century via such French theorists as Michel Foucault, Lacan and Jacques Derrida (whose ideas in turn descend from German philosophers Heidegger and Nietzsche). Very broadly postmodernist arguments deny an objective reality existing independently from human perception or awareness or lived experience. They insist that knowledge is filtered through the lenses of class, race, gender and other variables. Language is seen as unreliable and unstable (part of the unbridgeable gap between what is aid and what is meant), and even the notion of people acting as fully rational, autonomous individuals is rejected, as each of us is shaped, consciously or unconsciously, by a particular time or culture (Kakutani: pp.47-48).
As alluded to earlier, the crucible of the postmodernist revolution was France especially during and after the evenements of May 1968. Hitherto the economistic, class reductionist hard left had always been more prominent in France than in either the US or Britain. After May 1968 the proletarian revolutionary goals of the traditional Marxist left no longer seemed relevant to an emergent new Europe. The agenda of the left, or more accurately the New Left, switched to culture: the enemy that needed to be destroyed was no longer the extant political order which exploited the working class, but the hegemony of Western culture and values that suppressed minorities at home and developing countries abroad. Across the West, many left activists came to see the old working class and their trade unions as a privileged stratum with little sympathy for the condition of groups such as minorities and immigrants worse off than they were. Recognition struggles targeted newer groups and their rights as group rights rather than the economic inequality of individuals. (Fukuyama, 2019). In the process, the ‘old’ working class was to become steadily more ‘left-behind’ and marginalised for perhaps the next two generations. The seed, breed and generation of Brexit and Trump and other populist trends in contemporary Euro-American culture were arguably sown in this era.
Classical Marxism had accepted many of the pillars of the Western Enlightenment: a belief in science and rationality, a broadly linear view of history as progress, and in the superiority of modern societies over traditional ones. By contrast, the new cultural left was more Nietzschean and relativistic, attacking the Christian and democratic values on which the Western Enlightenment had been based. Western culture was portrayed as synonymous with colonialism, patriarchy and environmental despoliation (Fukuyama: pp.114-15) and the ever-present (until the end of the Cold War) threat of the destruction of humanity by nuclear war.
Arguably, the figure most synonymous with postmodernism is Jacques Derrida and the intellectual tool most identified with it is deconstruction which is indelibly associated with its celebrity founder; the afore-mentioned Monsieur Derrida. The word “deconstruction” describes the textual analysis which he pioneered and which would be applied not just to literature but to social sciences, history and architecture as well.
Deconstruction’s basic credo is that all texts are unstable and irreducibly complex and that readers and observers can make infinitely variable interpretations of the written word. In concentrating on the possible contradictions and ambiguities of texts, deconstruction posited an extreme relativism that was, in the final analysis, nihilistic in its implications; anything could mean anything; it was irrelevant what the author’s intention was as it could not be worked out. Obvious and common-sense meanings did not exist, because everything had an exponential array of meanings. In short, truth did not exist or matter (Kakutani: pp.56-57).
Deconstructionists attempted to shroud their theories with pretentious and deliberately impenetrable prose and perversely flexible syntax. Examples of terminology they use include “the indeterminacy of texts”, “alternative ways of knowing” and the “linguistic instability of language” (Kakutani: p.59). Enough material to fill a year’s output of Private Eye’s former column Pseuds Corner!
As David Lehman recounted in his revealing book Signs of the Times, he carefully crafted mystique around the uses of language which deconstructionists had so diligently advanced was blown apart by the Paul de Man scandal of 1987 and the use of deconstructionist rationales to defend the indefensible (Kakutani: p.57).
Paul de Man, a Yale professor and one of deconstruction’s leading lights with a celebrity, almost cult-like status in US academia until his death in 1983, had charmed a generation or more of students with his scholastic reputation and his backstory of having fled Nazi-occupied Europe where he, implied, had belonged to the Belgian Resistance. However this portrait was to be completely defenestrated by the publication of Evelyn Barish’s biography The Double Life of Paul de Man. In this expose, de Man was unmasked as a serial con man – an opportunist, bigamist, and toxic narcissist who’d been convicted in Belgium of fraud, forgery, and falsifying records (Kakutani: p.57).
The most appalling of all the revelations concerning De Man came four years after his death in 1987 with the uncovering of De Man’s pro-Nazi past by a young Belgian researcher. De Man had contributed at least a hundred articles for a fervent pro-Nazi Belgian publication Le Soir during World War II. In the most infamous of these, De Man argued that “Jewish writers have always remained in the second rank” and had therefore failed to maintain a “preponderant influence” on the evolution of contemporary European civilisation (Kakutani: p.58).
More preposterous still, were the excuses made by defenders of De Man, including Derrida himself through the use of the principles of deconstruction to try to rationalise the antisemitism in De Man’s writings. They suggested that his words actually subverted what they appeared to say or that there was too much ambiguity inherent in his words to assign moral responsibility (Kakutani: p.59)
One De Man admirer attempted to explain that De Man’s comments on Jewish writers were a case of “irony” misfiring, arguing that the essay’s tone was “one of detached mockery throughout the sections dealing with the Jews, and the object of the mockery is clearly not the Jews but rather the anti-Semites”. In lay person’s terms, the writer was suggesting that De Man had meant the very opposite of what his Le Soir columns had stated (Kakutani: p.59).
To call such twisted logic “sleight of hand” is to show unwarranted charity to Derrida and his disciples. A contemporary legacy of such mangling of language are the “irony” and “not to be taken serious” rationales of the 8chan and Redditt white nationalist trollers for their grossly offensive and incendiary output and their actual impact on political discourse through their recruitment by Alt-Right political entrepreneur Steve Bannon for Donald Trump’s successful Presidential election campaign in 2016.
Deconstruction can either become a parody of itself or it can facilitate the perversion of language in the manner of Orwell’s infamous triple strapline of his 1984 Oceania dystopia (“War Is Peace,” “Freedom Is Slavery” “Ignorance Is Strength”) to turn the meaning of words into their exact opposite. In Orwell’s language of Newspeak in 1984, a word like “blackwhite” has “two contradictory meanings””: Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. (Kakutani: p.95)
Three decades after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Soviet Communism and, with it, its hollowed out and parodical linguistic concepts of the “working class”, “fraternalism”, “proletarian internationalism” and “anti-imperialism”; such abuse of language has reappeared in the vocabulary of one President Trump who, on the surface, stands as an ideological polar opposite to Communism and some of whose supporters view Covid-19 lockdown restrictions as attempts to impose a “United Socialist States of America”.
Just like the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, Trump has perfected the disturbing art of using words to mean the exact opposite what they mean. It is not just his perversion of the term “fake news” to discredit journalism he takes umbrage to. It is his brazen hypocrisy in calling the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election “the single greatest witch hunt in American political history" when it is he who consistently denigrates any institution he deems hostile to him, be it the press, the Justice Department, the FBI, the intelligence services (Kakutani:p.95)l or indeed any personage, home or abroad (e.g. the footballer Colin Kaepernick and the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan) that he wishes to fire off an early morning missive on Twitter.
Furthermore, Trump also has the unashamed insouciance to accuse opponents of the very faults that he is guilty of himself: “Lyin’ Ted,” “Crooked Hillary,” “Crazy Bernie.” He accused Clinton of being “a bigot who sees people of colour only as votes, not as human beings worthy of a better future, “ (this from someone who has proposed ‘a total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States and who has labelled Mexicans as overall “bad hombres”) and claimed that “there was tremendous collusion on behalf of the Russians and the Democrats.” (Kakutani: p.95).
These sorts of lies, the journalist Masha Gessen has pointed out, serves the same purpose as the lies that Vladimir Putin tells: “to assert power over truth itself”. In relation to the Russian involvement in the Ukraine conflict, Putin lied in the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary and when he shifted towards more truthful accounts, he voiced them in confident, boastful terms as opposed to any signs of contrition. As President of his country and king of reality, Putin’s power lies in his ability to say whatever he wants despite the facts – surely the ultimate and most consequential expression of absolute state power. Any wonder why then other despots can feel equally comfortable in dismissing the most damning truths about the crimes of their regimes. So President Assad of Syria can say in response to the Amnesty International report of the murder of up to 13,000 prisoners in the Saydnaya prison complex (the Middle East’s Tuol Sleng) outside Damascus between 2011 and 2015 “You can forge anything these days” – “We are living in a fake news era”. And in Myanmar, an officer in the state security ministry can dismiss the well documented ethnic cleansing campaign against the Muslim Rohingya people by stating that “There is no such thing as Rohingya. It is fake news”. It is hardly surprising also that Trump’s “fake news” rants have led authoritarian governments to double-down on already restricted press freedoms in Russia, China, Turkey and Hungary and other countries (Kakutani: p.101).
In a back-to-the-future essay about Mussolini and “ur-fascism” in 1995 Umberto Eco gave an ominous forecast of a Trumpian-style America. As well as features fundamental to fascism such as appeal to is ethnic nationalist solidarity and to people’s “fear of difference; rejection of science and rationality; the invention of imagined traditions and the equation of dissent with treason" (all at least proto-Trumpian staples), Eco wrote that Mussolini did not have any philosophy, only rhetoric. It was a hazy totalitarianism; a smorgasbord of differing and sometimes contradictory ideas and concepts. But importantly Ur-fascism employed a barren, simplistic vocabulary and a basic syntax. And, most important of all, it saw the ‘People’ as a monolithic entity expressing a Roussean Common Will which the leader pretends to interpret as ‘the Voice of the People’ (Kakutani: p.102) in contrast to the individualistic, citizenship elements of liberal democracy.
Finally, when Donald Trump in his address to the Republican National Convention in 2016 declared “I am with you- the American people. I am your voice”; many may have imagined the storm clouds of the 1930s gathering. While reversion to the horrors of the totalitarianism of the 20th century is fanciful (although history will always sound its warnings); it may not be too fanciful to imagine a postmodern, post-democratic future for Western societies in the 21st century. The future of democracy does therefore demand and end to the degradation of language.
Francis Fukuyama (2019) Identity. Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition. London: Profile Books.
Michiko Kakutani (2018) The Death of Truth. London: William Collins Books.
 George Orwell,” Looking Back on the Spanish War”, A Collection of Essays (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1981) p.199
 ‘So what’. “Outcry at Bolsonaro’s response to Brazil’s Covid-19 death toll” The Guardian 30th April pp.22-23
 Mathieu Bock-Cote, Le multiculuralisme comme religion politique (Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 2016) pp.16-19
 The most shocking news: Lehman, Signs of the Times pp163-64
 Evelyn Barish (2004), The Double Life of Paul de Man (New York: Liveright); Robert Alter, “Paul de Man Was a Total Fraud,” New Republic 5th April 2014; Jennifer Schuessler “Revisiting a Scholar Unmasked by a Scandal.” New York Times 9th March 2014
 In one editorial it declared that “we are determined to forbid ourselves any cross-breeding with them and to liberate ourselves spiritually from their demoralising influences in the realm of thought, literature and the arts.” (Kakutani: p.58)
 He went on to write that “One can see that a solution that would lead to a Jewish colony isolated from Europe would not have, for the literary life of the West, regrettable consequences. It would lose, in all, some personalities of mediocre worth and would continue, as in the past, to develop according to its laws of evolution”. Paul de Man, “The Jews in Contemporary Literature,” Le Soir, 4th March 1941, reprinted in Martin McQuillan (2001) Paul De Man New York: Routledge.
 Orwell, 1984 (New York: Signet Classics, 1950) p.16
 Ibid, p.212.
 Masha Gessen, “The Putin Paradigm,” New York Radio Daily, 13th December 2016.
 Umberto Eco, “Ur-fascism”, New York Review of Books 22nd June 1995.
⏩Barry Gilheany is a freelance writer, qualified counsellor and aspirant artist resident in Colchester where he took his PhD at the University of Essex. He is also a lifelong Leeds United supporter seeking the Promised Land of the Premiership!