Post-truth:thought in the trump era

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben

Lee Mcintyre’s Post-Truth begins with the following epigraph from George Orwell:

The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history.

In 2016, the Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” the word of the year. That it was Donald Trump’s election year was no coincidence. Now President, he has waged a new Cold War - certainly not on Russia, but rather on knowledge itself, or more precisely on those who hold it. This cooling does not seem to have affected academia in the main, which may explain its tepid response. But in the corridors of governmental scientific agencies, the EPA in particular, the climate of fear (over climate) has given scientists the unenviable choice of capitulation or resignation. CDC has also felt the chill, with certain terms relating to abortion now banned.

McIntyre relates the following chilling exchange between the journalist Alicyn Camerota and Newt Gingrich, “a surrogate for Trump at the time:”


But far from being a “politician,” Gingrich was Trump’s “surrogate” which puts him in the position held by Machiavelli - an advisor to power. 

I try with my own students to distinguish between fact and opinion - a task that upper-level teachers probably didn’t have to think about even in the recent past. I teach them about logical fallacies, even in courses very far removed from formal logic or philosophy, because they can’t decipher the news without understanding them. 

I was even on a panel (which I did not name) about blogging at the Hawai’i Book and Music Festival called “Truth and Truthiness” - that sense one gets when something “feels true, even if it is not necessarily backed up by facts.” McIntyre notes that truthiness “was treated as a big joke” when the term first emerged, “but people aren’t laughing anymore”

Is it only a matter of time before the chill reaches first public and then private institutions of higher education? Or has it already? The appearance of phenomena like the Professor Watch List may be amusing to some (and some may even be offended not to be on the list) but those who find it so must have a morbid sense of humor indeed.

In an online exchange, University of Hawai’i Political Science Professor Jairus Grove, author of Savage Ecology, noted Bill McKibben’s call to Baby Boomers to put their bodies on the line to fight climate change. (McKibben had just been arrested protesting Trump’s immigration policy.)

[McKibben] told a room full of us at conference that it was time for people his age to start putting their bodies on the line. He said that he was too old for the arrest record to make a difference and that everyone his age needed to join him if something was going to be done about climate change. I am glad the horror show at the border is as important to him. He is an impressive guy and unapologetic that direct action is all that we have left.

This kind of sacrifice becomes more and more difficult as one gets older, more comfortable and moves further up the tenure ladder. But it may be necessary at some point, perhaps very soon, if, in fact, we cherish intellectual freedom and the life of the mind.

thought in a time of climate change

In 2016 I was a keynote speaker for an institute at Cornell. One night I found myself riding in a Volvo 850 with three professors, talking about Volvos. Every person in that car had, or previously had, a Volvo (I had a V70). Volvos match the intellectual’s personality; safe, long lasting, high brow but not so high as to alienate the lumpen proletariat. But they are definitely not fuel efficient.

As it is when it comes to money, the academic culture is ambivalent about day to day environmentally sustainable lifestyles. We drive gas guzzling Volvos but once on campus, we walk. More importantly, we teach, often esoteric, subjects in safe spaces while the world burns. Bill McKibben founded the nonprofit, denoting the safe upper limit on carbon - the atmosphere recently reached 450 parts per million. The usually upbeat Professor Chip Fletcher of the University of Hawai’i, a major scientist studying climate change, states that he finds it all very depressing and that what’s needed is not hope but courage.

Recycling is institutionalized in most campuses, but conference travel casts a huge carbon footprint, yet is necessary for tenure and promotion. Back in 2008 The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story entitled “Academic travel causes global warming,” but admitted:

OK, the headline is a stretch. However, it is true that air travel puts large amounts of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, soot, and even water vapor directly into the atmosphere, all of which makes an inordinate and unsustainable contribution to global warming. And academics do fly -- a lot. As the environmental writer and activist Mark Lynas argued in the New Statesman: "Probably the single most polluting thing you or I will ever do is step on a plane."

Around Harvard, I’d hear about (but never saw) Noam Chomsky riding around on his bicycle, but I’d stop short of saying we should all be like him. Though there is a bike path from his home in Lexington to Cambridge, it doesn’t really reach the far end of the city where MIT is, so I doubt he rode this distance daily.

Still we could all do more. I commuted by running for about six years, distances of three to six miles. Living in Hawai’i has its perks - I don’t mean the ones you might think. We have a major convention center and so major academic conferences come here. I was on a panel at the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) conference in 2017 here and I’ll be on another panel at the American Studies Association (ASA) this November. Next year, the International Studies Association (ISA) is also here in Hawai’i. All without boarding a plane. Of course, most attendees will have flown 2500 or more miles, but focusing on regional conferences this way could help shrink the footprint academic life makes on the planet.