Cultural, International, Life as it is, Literary, Political, Religious, Technical

The Illusion of Reality

The reality is considered to be the state of a thing or situation, not a notional idea or perception, that is unambiguous or obvious at a specific space and time. The state of reality is vivid, transparent and beyond dispute. A ‘real’ thing is there, right in front of the eyes of the viewer to observe with full consciousness. But, is reality as ‘real’ as it is claimed to be? Is there no illusion in viewing or observing something that is ‘real’?

Nearly a century ago (1930 to be precise), Tagore, ‘the poet with the head of a scientist’, and Einstein, ‘the scientist with the head of a poet’, debated (and some would say, clashed) on the nature of reality at Einstein’s home outside Berlin. Einstein held the notion of reality that was vivid, transparent, visible, sort of ‘moon was there, whether one looked at it or not’, ‘a beauty was there, whether one observed it or not’. Reality arises from physical presence that cannot be denied or disputed.

On the other hand, Tagore held the view that reality of all physical objects, truth, beauty and so forth was dependent on human consciousness. Without human consciousness, the reality of anything was incoherent and irrelevant. He maintained that this world was a human world – the scientific view of it was also that of a scientific man. Therefore, the world apart from us does not exist, it is a subjective world, depending for its reality upon our consciousness.

Reality is not always ‘real’ as we view it; it can deceive our perception, our senses and consciousness or sense of reality may be partial or incomplete. Let us look at the Figure given below. The light from a distant star can be bent by the gravitational field of the Sun before it reaches us and then we view the position of the star at its ‘apparent position’. Of course, with scientific investigation, taking other parameters into consideration, the ‘real’ position of the star can be accurately determined. But to a common man, the ‘apparent position’ is the ‘real’ position of the star, he can point it out in the sky with his own fingers and that is the reality for him!

The moon is the nearest celestial body from earth. Even then, what we see or do not see of the moon may not be the real thing. For example, we may not see the moon due to cloud cover, but that does not mean the moon is not there in the sky. In Islam, religious events are fixed by the sight of the moon and the lack of sight of moon does not mean that the moon is not there in reality. That illusion of absence is taken as a substitute for reality. The light we get from our nearest star, beyond sun, comes to us four years after it had been emitted. In other words, our reality is four years behind the present time. We can get light or radiation from a star or a galaxy some 100 million or 200 million or 1000 million light years from us and during that time that star or galaxy may have died or disappeared. So, our reality of the existence of that star could be totally out of place.

The nearer an object is from us, the more accurate is our perception of the reality of that object. However, on the miniscule scale of atomic and sub-atomic realm, i.e. quantum field, our reality takes another knock. In there, particles like electrons, quarks etc take on dual role of particles and waves – which one at which point no one knows. An electron whizzes around the nucleus of an atom as waves, but when an energy is given to it or taken away from it, it behaves like a particle. Only the act of observation can determine the true nature or the reality of the electron. In quantum mechanics, it is axiomatic that only in the act of measurement does an electron become real. An unobserved electron is unreal (Copenhagen interpretation).  

However, an observed electron does not behave exactly the same way in various circumstances. A concrete example is the double slit experiment when electrons are fired one at a time and interference pattern is observed on the screen due to wave nature of electrons. Now, if a detector is placed to detect which slit the electron is going through, the interference pattern disappears. If the detector is then switched off, leaving all other arrangements intact, the interference pattern reappears. It is, as if, the electron does not like to be detected which way it is going. In other words, the act of observation modifies the outcome. Thus, the act of observation in this instance does not give the reality; rather the very act of observation changes the outcome of the reality.

The view of reality in the cosmological scale may be somewhat misplaced, as objects may not be exactly where they apparently appear to be. Also, in the ultra-small sub-atomic fields, objects cannot be assigned any particular positions based on physical principles. Only an act of observation may offer the object a specific position and that may be construed as the reality. But strangely that act of observation may change the otherwise reality!

Over the centuries and millennia, people had been narrating different ‘real’ stories. Moses, the prophet of Judaism, saw a bush-fire in the corn field right in front of his eyes and when he went nearer, that bush-fire disappeared, he saw nothing was burnt and received the God’s command not to approach it any further. To him, the event was vivid and real (although we now know that he witnessed a mirage). To George W Bush, the command from God to invade Iraq was real (unless he made it up). To millions of fanatic religious people, the existence of God or Allah or Yahweh is absolute and real; heaven and hell are real! It is the state of their mind that dictates reality.

Thus, there does not seem to be a universal notion or narrative of a reality that is true to everyone at every occasion. Reality seems to be subjective, depending on individual’s state of mind or consciousness, as Tagore had asserted. What is real, vivid and utterly true to someone may be totally unrealistic, utterly non-sensical to another person with a different state. Reality can thus be an illusory notion.      

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.

Cultural, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Political

World Population and Environmental Catastrophe

We are all aware of, indeed seriously concerned about, the climate change and global warming. The large majority of scientists – environmentalists, climatologists, atmospheric physicists, geophysicists, geochemists, oceanographers and experts of hosts of associated disciplines – as well as overwhelming proportion of human population unanimously hold the view that significant climate change is indeed taking place and that is all due to human activities. But then a small but powerful section of the population, mostly in America, reject this contention and assign changes to just natural activities. Obviously, these people have vested interests in deflecting away human activities.

It is blatantly obvious that human activities are the root causes of climate change. Of course, nature may be reacting to adverse conditions created by human beings, but the initial cause is human activity. One may ask, why is it that earth is reacting so disastrously over the last few decades when it existed in stable conditions for millions of years? The answer is undoubtedly ‘WE ARE’, there are too many of ‘US’ – human beings on the surface of the earth demanding, exploiting and extracting earth’s resources ruthlessly without any regard to its stability and sustainability.

Some 200 years ago or even 100 years ago we were doing what we are doing now – spewing out carbon dioxide and other global warming gases into the atmosphere – but that did not change climatic conditions irreversibly, because not enough of us had been doing the abusive actions. But now more than 7,500 million of us abusing the earth and probably pushed the earth to the threshold or beyond its sustainability.

The large human population of the present day is causing the problems. The United Nations’ estimation of human population from 1050 to 2017 is shown in Figure 1, where the past numbers had been compiled from human records and best estimate values. At no time until 1850 the global human population exceeded 1.0 billion. Around 1750, when Industrial Revolution took place, the Western World started using coal and other natural resources to improve living conditions and consequently the population started to grow significantly. From that time on, not only the standards of living started to improve but also better hygiene and improved medical sciences managed to bring down the death rate and thereby help increase population growth. At the moment the global population is 7.5 billion and growing at the rate of 80 million every year and this number is also growing! Since 1970, the global population had gone up by two-fold!

In 1960s and 1970s there were intense debates about the sustainability of the world population beyond about 3.5 billion, particularly with regard to food production. As estimated at that time that in about 12 to 15 years the population would grow by more than a billion (about 30% of the prevailing population). If so, could the food production be increased by about 30% in that time scale? The global population had been going up at that rate ever since despite all the measures taken to curtail it.

As the population grows, there are extra demands for housing and other socio-economic facilities and consequent shrinkage of arable land. But human ingenuity prevailed – multiple crop production, better yielding crop, crop rotation, disease resistant seeds and now GM crop etc – had improved food production. In fact, food production had been improved so much that food supply for the population is no longer an issue. But that had created more serious problems, particularly environmental problems, which need to be tackled.

Figure 1 Human population from 1050 to 2017

The United Nations have also produced a population growth projection for the years 1950 to 2100, as shown in Figure 2. Many factors affect population growth and incorporating various assumptions in those factors produce widely varying outcomes.  The middle thick green line is the outcome based on best estimate values, whereas the top and bottom lines are those with 95% level of confidence in various assumptions. If corrective actions such as proper family planning, better education and social responsibility of the population etc. are taken, the population growth could be limited to 9.6 billion in 2100, whereas unbridled growth will show a figure of 13.6 billion! The difference between two extremes in population numbers in 2100 is about 4 billion, more than 50% of the present population! That is an alarming prospect indeed!

Figure 2 Human population projection until 2100

Population distribution is not uniform round the world, as shown in Figure 3. At the moment over 60% (4.6 billion) of world population is in Asia and Africa constitutes 1.4 billion (less than 20%). But by 2100 the Asian population may remain same or even decline, whereas African population will shoot up to 4.4 billion, more than three times of the present population. This drastic increase will place enormous burden on the continent and may even lead to violent responses, unprecedented population migration to other continents etc. This situation will arise on top of ensuing environmental deterioration – global warming, extreme weather conditions etc.

Figure 3 Population growth by continents

It is interesting to note that China’s present population of over 1.42 billion would come down to about 1.06 billion by 2100, whereas India’s population would grow from 1.35 billion to 1.46 billion in the same time scale, as shown in Figure 4.  China’s drastic reduction in population is due to lower fertility rates which arise due to older population group. China had imposed two-child policy right from its inception and gradually it is bearing fruit.

Figure 4 Most populous countries

As already mentioned, population growth is multifactorial. But a very important factor is the economic condition of the country. A run away population growth stunts the economic growth of the country and at the same time a low economic growth tends to encourage higher population growth. A family tends to produce more children in a poverty-stricken country so that the children can look after the parents at their old ages. Thus, population growth and poverty form a vicious circle. Examples are Pakistan and Nigeria where large population growths are anticipated. On the other hand, Bangladesh is the country which has broken out of this vicious circle.

Let us get back to the aforementioned theme that climate change is primarily due to the presence of vast population. Coal extraction and its use by limited number of people catering for one or two billion people in the Western World in the 18th or 19th century was not that damaging to the climate. But, as deprived population of the East as well as other decolonised countries’ population are striving to improve living standards from abysmal depths, demand for natural resources like coal, gas, oil as well as minerals have gone up exponentially and environmental degradation followed the suit.

Nature has an inbuilt mechanism of correcting itself when there is any deviation or offset from the norm, which is commonly known as negative feedback. If there is an increase in temperature in the summer, more water from the sea would evaporate and subsequent rain would cool down the area. There are lots of factors acting in opposite phase to the initial condition to stabilise the natural conditions and that is the negative feedback.

But there may be situations when moderate negative feedback condition could breakdown and violent response would ensue. If due to excessive increase in global temperature, arctic and Antarctic ice caps melt, then there would be no seasonal cold stream of water, no moderation of summer temperature etc. In some areas the temperature would become so high that there would be almost spontaneous fire – as in Australia, California and even in Siberia. Condensation would be restricted to limited areas giving large increase in rainfall – as in England now – causing unprecedented floods etc.

So, either we pull ourselves back from the precipice by limiting and then reversing the damage that had already been inflicted to the nature or let nature go berserk threatening the very existence of human life or for that matter any form of life on earth.  

  • Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist    

Cultural, International, Life as it is, Literary, Political

Solzhenitsyn – an ardent Communist to a devout Christian

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (11 Dec 1918 – 3 Aug 2008) was a Russian novelist, short story writer, philosopher, historian and a political ideologist. Born a year after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in October 1917 and in the immediate aftermath of WWI, his life and works were shaped by the harsh realities of life during his formative period and the consequences of war. 

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

His parents had all the trappings and background of Imperial Russia. His father, Isaakiy Solzhenitsyn, was an officer in the elite Cossack Brigade (which was fiercely Tsarist) of the Imperial Russian Army and his mother was the daughter of a wealthy landowner in the Kuban region in the northern foothill of the Caucasus. Thus, his family fitted the typical bourgeois family, as defined by the revolutionary Bolshevik party, against which Bolshevik revolution was carried out in 1917. His father died soon after his mother conceived him and so he was brought up by his widowed mother in extreme hardship deprived of her wealth by the communist regime of Soviet Russia. Although he was to become a great literary giant, he studied Physics and Mathematics at Rostov State University.

As he grew up as an ardent communist, the drums of next war (WWII) were beating louder and louder and, inevitably, he had to join the Russian Army against Nazi invasion to save his motherland. As a brilliant officer of Cossack heritage, he showed his military excellence and was twice decorated. But the war left a very painful imprint on him. He witnessed war crimes by the Soviet Army against German civilians – the non-combatants and the elderly were robbed of meagre possessions, women were gang raped and killed, houses were burnt and the whole village pillaged. On atrocities, he wrote in agony, “You know very well that we have come to take revenge against the Nazi atrocities in the Soviet Union”.

While serving in the Red Army in WWII, he was arrested for derogatory remarks on the conduct of the war by Josef Stalin in a private letter to a friend in 1945, just a couple of months before the end of the war, and was sentenced to eight years imprisonment in labour camps. He was in a prison in Moscow when on 9th May 1945 Germany had surrendered. While the whole city erupted in jubilation, the person who fought for the country and risked his life was in the prison!

His sentence started in 1945. He chronicled his life in labour camps as forming three phases. In the last phase, from 1950 to 1953, he was in a ‘Special Camp’ for political prisoners in Kazakhstan, where was forced to work as a miner, bricklayer and a foundry foreman. His experience during this time formed the basis of his novel ‘One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich’ (1962). This was the only book that was allowed to be published in the Soviet Union after the reforms that were carried out by Nikita Khrushchev and, even then, only after Khrushchev’s personal patronage. That reform also freed him from exile in 1956 and allowed to go back to Moscow. His books ‘Cancer Ward’ (1968), ‘August 1914’ (1971), ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ (1973) and many more were all published abroad.  

In all of his books, ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ received most attention in the West, as it was in this book, he exposed the moral depravity of communist ideology. The Gulag, in Russian, is the acronym of Main Directorate of Camps (labour). It was written over a period of ten years taking materials from reports, interviews, diaries as well as legal documents and his own experiences. The three volumes of this book published in 1973 in the West led to his expulsion from the Soviet Union.     

He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970 “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature”. The authorities in Soviet Union were very much angered by his supposedly anti-communist moral and ethical propaganda in the form of literary contributions. In 1974 Soviet Authorities withdrew his Soviet citizenship. He was then flown to the then West Germany and after protracted negotiations, he was allowed to move his family to America in 1976. He lived in America from 1976 until 1994 when he returned to Russia after the fall of Soviet Union. During this period, he wrote the dramatized account of Russian Revolution of 1917 in “The Red Wheel”.

Although in the West he is portrayed as the voice against communism, a lone writer standing up to the might of an ‘Evil Empire’ etc, in reality, he was simply expressing his moral values – be it against communism or capitalism. He wrote a number of articles, while in America, showing the vacuousness of American capitalism and its moral degradation. He strongly criticised America for invading Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo. He wrote, “In our country the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of the State”. This narrative is now relevant to many countries, East or West.  

He also wrote, “Any man who has once proclaimed violence as his method is inevitably forced to take the lie as his principle”. It may have been written against the backdrop of Josef Stalin’s atrocities and violent measures in WWII, but it also applies very well to modern day politicians – democratically elected in Western affluent countries – like George W Bush, Tony Blair, Donald Trump and many more.

In 1994 he returned to Russia with his family and lived in Western part of Moscow. Although he lived over 17 years in America, he never accepted American culture and way of life. As he became old, he moved away from socialism and became a devout Russian Orthodox Christian. He died on 3 August 2008 of heart attack.

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Cultural, Environmental, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political, Travel

Brexit – the most pointless masochistic step in UK’s history

It’s done. A triumph of dogged negotiation by Theresa May then, briefly, Boris Johnson, has fulfilled the most pointless, masochistic ambition ever dreamt of in the history of these islands. The rest of the world, presidents Putin and Trump excepted, have watched on in astonishment and dismay. A majority voted in December for parties which supported a second referendum. But those parties failed lamentably to make common cause. We must pack up our tents, perhaps to the sound of church bells, and hope to begin the 15-year trudge, back towards some semblance of where we were yesterday with our multiple trade deals, security, health and scientific co-operation and a thousand other useful arrangements.

The only certainty is that we’ll be asking ourselves questions for a very long time. Set aside for a moment Vote Leave’s lies, dodgy funding, Russian involvement or the toothless Electoral Commission, consider instead the magic dust. How did a matter of such momentous constitutional, economic and cultural consequence come to be settled by a first-past-the-post vote and not by a super-majority? A parliamentary paper at the time of the 2015 Referendum Act hinted at the reason: because the referendum was merely advisory. It “enables the electorate to voice an opinion”. How did “advisory” morph into “binding”? By that blinding dust thrown in our eyes from right and left by populist hands.

We endured a numbing complicity between government and opposition. The door out of Europe was held open by Corbyn for Johnson to walk through.

What did we learn in our blindness? That those not flourishing within the status quo had no good reason to vote for it; that our prolonged parliamentary chaos derived from an ill-posed yes-no question to which there were a score of answers; that the long-evolved ecology of the EU has profoundly shaped the flora of our nation’s landscape and to rip these plants out will be brutal; that what was once called a hard Brexit became soft by contrast with the threatened no-deal that even now persists; that any mode of departure, by the government’s own estimate, will shrink the economy; that we have a gift for multiple and bitter division – young against old, cities against the country, graduates against early school-leavers, Scotland and Northern Ireland against England and Wales; that all past, present and future international trade deals or treaties are a compromise with sovereignty, as is our signature on the Paris accords, or our membership of NATO, and that therefore “Take Back Control” was the emptiest, most cynical promise of this sorry season.

We surprised ourselves. Only a few years ago, asked to list the nation’s ills – wealth gap, ailing NHS, north-south imbalance, crime, terrorism, austerity, housing crisis etc – most of us would not have thought to include our membership of the EU. How happy we were in 2012, in the afterglow of our successful Olympics. We weren’t thinking then of Brussels. It was, in Guy Verhofstadt’s famous term, a “cat-fight” within the Tory party that got us going. Those cats had been fighting each other for decades. When they dragged us in and urged us to take sides, we had a collective nervous breakdown; then sufficient numbers wanted the distress to go away and “get Brexit done”. Repeated ad nauseam by the prime minister it almost seemed impolite to ask why.

In the early days of the referendum campaign we learned that “on the doorstep” it was all about migration; but we also learned that it was the UK’s decision, not the EU’s, to allow unlimited migration from the accession countries before the permitted seven years were up; it was the UK’s choice to allow EU migrants to stay more than six months without a job; it was the UK that successfully campaigned to enlarge the EU eastwards; it is the UK, not the EU, that lets non-EU migration continue (and why not?) as EU migration declines. We also learned that the UK, not the EU, opted for our maroon rather than patriotic blue passports. Though, as I look, my old passports seem almost black.

There is much that is historically unjust about the British state, but very little of that injustice derives from the EU. Brussels didn’t insist that we neglect the post-industrial towns of the Midlands and the north; or demand that we let wages stagnate, or permit multimillion handouts to the CEOs of failing companies, or prefer shareholder value over the social good, or run our health service, social care and Sure Start into the ground, close 600 police stations and let the fabric of our state schools decay.

It was the task of the Brexit campaign to persuade the electorate otherwise. In the referendum they succeeded with 37%, enough to transform our collective fate for a generation at least. To cause sufficient numbers to believe that the source of all their grievances is some hostile outside element is the oldest trick in the populist handbook. As Trotsky was for Stalin, as the USA is for the mullahs of Iran and Gülen is for Erdoğan, so Brussels has served its turn.

Hedge fund owners, plutocrat donors to the cause, Etonians and newspaper proprietors cast themselves as enemies of the elite. More magic dust. The claim that the Northern Ireland issue has been settled is a dangerous pretence. We have witnessed reasoned argument’s fall from grace. The Brexit impulse had strong elements of blood-and-soil, with hints of Empire nostalgia. Such spooky longings floated high above mere facts.

We acquired an argot. “Article 50”, “frictionless trade”, “just in time”, “the backstop” – how they tripped off the tongue. We learned to respect an “invisible border”. Before it all began, only a very few knew the difference between the customs union and the single market. Three years on, not much has changed. A survey last year showed that quite a lot of us thought that “crashing out” was the same as remaining. If only.

The Brexit leadership and the leader of the opposition were always in a hurry to start article 50’s two-year stopwatch. They feared that leave voters might change their minds, that those who didn’t vote last time were 2:1 for remaining, and that young voters coming on to the rolls would be mostly pro-EU. The Brexiter generals reasonably feared a second referendum.

At least, we can all agree that we will be a bit poorer. As one of my school teachers used to say, if a thing is really worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. Theresa May could never bring herself to say that Brexit would make us better off. She wouldn’t even tell us if she would vote to leave in a second referendum. We should credit her honesty. By contrast, Boris Johnson, laying his post-Brexit vision before parliament, promised he would narrow the UK’s wealth and opportunity gap between north and south, and make it the home of cutting-edge battery technology. He forgot to mention that the EU never stood in the way of either project.

Redefining our new trade relations with the EU will preoccupy us for years. As for the US position, take a long walk in the American mid-west and you’ll go a month across a monoculture desert and not see a wildflower. To compete, our own agriculture would have to welcome the hormone hypodermic. Our farmers will need to divest of inefficient hedgerows, boundary trees and three-metre field margins – museum pieces all. When it was in trade talks with the EU, the US wouldn’t contemplate higher standards of husbandry, food standards and environmental protection, even though they would have granted access to half a billion consumers. American farming corporations will not be changing their ways for a nation of a mere 65 million. If we want a deal, it is we who must downgrade.

We sense damage and diminishment ahead. In a dangerous world crowded with loud-mouthed “strongmen”, the EU was our best hope for an open, tolerant, free and peaceful community of nations. Those hopes are already threatened as populist movements have swept across Europe. Our withdrawal will weaken resistance to the xenophobic tendency. The lesson of our nation’s history these past centuries is plain: turmoil in continental Europe will draw us into bloody conflicts. Nationalism is rarely a project for peace. Nor does it care to counter climate change. It prefers to let tropical forests and the Australian bush burn.

Take a road trip from Greece to Sweden, from Portugal to Hungary. Leave your passport behind. What a rich, teeming bundle of civilisations – in food, manners, architecture, language, and each nation state profoundly and proudly different from its neighbours. No evidence of being under the boot-heel of Brussels. Nothing here of continental USA’s dreary commercial sameness. Summon everything you’ve learned of the ruinous, desperate state of Europe in 1945, then contemplate a stupendous economic, political and cultural achievement: peace, open borders, relative prosperity, and the encouragement of individual rights, tolerance and freedom of expression. Until Friday this was where our grown-up children went at will to live and work.

That’s over, and for now the force is with English nationalism. Its champion is Johnson’s Vote Leave cabinet whose monument will forever be a special kind of smirk, perfected back in the days of the old Soviet Union. I’m lying, you know I’m lying and I know that you know and I don’t give a damn. As in, “The five-week prorogation of parliament has nothing to do with Brexit.” Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg were masters of the mocking grin. The supreme court’s inconvenient judgement that this prorogation was illegal clearly still rankles. Recently, the ex-home secretary Michael Howard was set on to murmur against the judges. Extending political control over an independent judiciary would be consonant with the Johnson-Cummings project. Victor Orbán of Hungary lights the way.

The remainers held out for a kinder sort of world, but we were always the herbivores in this debate, with our enormous, good-natured and derided marches – “a hate-filled crowd”, the Sun; “an elite”, the Daily Telegraph. If 16 million remainers are an elite, then we may rejoice that the UK is a model of meritocracy.

We were, in truth, the left-behinds. By the grace of Corbyn and his grim lieutenants, we had no effective voice in parliament. On her first day as prime minister, Theresa May promised outside No 10 that she would govern for us all. Instead, she threw half the country to the dogs to appease her party’s right wing. Initially, Boris Johnson’s elevation was decided by a tiny, ageing constituency, the majority of whose members told pollsters that they wished Donald Trump ruled Britain and that they longed for the return of hanging. In similar spirit, Johnson found fresh depths of populist vulgarity when he spoke last June of pitchforking the EU incubus off the nation’s back. He has realised his dream.

As for the outer extremes, the occasional milkshake aside, we never violently assaulted a Brexiter in the street; we only rarely inclined to sending anonymous death and rape threats such as came so abundantly the way of Gina Miller, Anna Soubry and many female MPs. However, the antisemitic emails from within the Labour party were a disgrace. So too was the bullying mob jeering outside the Rees-Mogg home. But we remainers did not slyly exhort our compatriots to riot in the event of a second referendum going against us. Nearly two-thirds of the electorate did not vote to leave; most of business and the trade unions, agriculture, science, finance and the arts were against the Brexit project; three-quarters of MPs voted to remain. But our representatives ignored the evident public interest and shrank behind party cabals and “the people have spoken” – that bleak Soviet locution – followed by “get Brexit done”, the mind-clouding magic dust which has blinded reason and diminished our children’s prospects.

Ian McEwan is a Guardian columnist (published in the Guardian on 1 Feb 2020)

Cultural, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Literary, Political

What is the difference between lies and post-truth in politics? A philosopher explains.

If I wrote “The first sentence in this article is a lie”, is this sentence true, or is it a lie? And, if a liar declares “I am lying”, is the liar telling the truth? In philosophy and logic, this is known as the Liar’s Paradox: the liar is a liar, and if the liar is indeed lying, then the liar is telling the truth, which means the liar just lied.

Lies are part of the DNA of modern society, though we often now refer to them with the more dignified terminology of marketing, advertising, propaganda or spin. From unscrupulous sellers of used cars to prime ministers making unsubstantiated declarations about weapons of mass destruction, it seems that many people now make a living from lies.

In the public imagination politicians are professional liars par excellence, or as the writer George Orwell once put it: “Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.”

In her essay Truth and Politics, published in The New Yorker in 1967, the philosopher Hannah Arendt was already lamenting the fact that politics and truth don’t mix. But even Arendt was aware that not all lies are the same. There are lies that are minimal forms of deception, a micro-tear in the fabric of reality, while some lies are so big that they require a complete rearrangement of the whole factual texture, a shift to another reality. In today’s terminology, Arendt was alerting us to the difference between a lie, and the 2016 Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year – “post-truth”.

One way to understand the difference between lies and post-truth, which I’ve written about in a new paper, is that a liar denies specific facts that have precise coordinates in space and time, whereas post-truth questions the very nature of truth. A liar knows the truth, and, by trying to persuade us of an alternative narrative, a liar is paradoxically honouring the truth, whereas post-truth allows no last refuge for the truth.

Clinton versus Trump

This distinction between a lie and post-truth becomes clearer by comparing two recent American presidents, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. At a White House press conference on January 26 1998, Clinton famously said:

I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time; never.

Clinton’s statement, given the subsequent revelations and a semen-stained blue dress, is disconcerting. It’s possible that Clinton did not consider his intimate interactions with Lewinsky as a “sexual relation”, but that is unlikely – it would require a phenomenal effort of self-deception, or ingenuity, to defend that position with honesty and integrity. Clinton was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice, because he lied under oath, but he was ultimately acquitted in a Senate trial.

Subverting truth itself

Clinton lied, and that was inexcusable. But Trump’s relationship with truth is even more disturbing, and dangerous. Trump’s incessant accusations of fake news against the main media outlets, including the Washington Post, The New York Times, and CNN, reflects a longstanding disdain for the truth. Unlike Clinton, Trump is not simply denying certain facts, instead he is determined to undermine the theoretical infrastructure that makes it possible to have a conversation about the truth.

Trump’s response and demeanour to the impeachment allegations made against him is a typical example of post-truth. By spurning the impeachment proceedings as a “charade” and a “witch-hunt”, his strategy is to create an environment where objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion, where theoretical frameworks necessary to make sense of certain events are scorned, and where scientific truth is delegitimised.

This is the major difference between a lie and post-truth. While a lie subverts a specific truth, post-truth tries to subvert truth itself. Trump’s abhorrence of truth is reflected in the remarkable claim by one of his lawyers, Rudy Giuliani, that “truth is relative”. Giuliani was talking on NBC News about the request by special counsel Robert Mueller for an interview with Trump regarding the Russia investigation. Giuliani raised concerns that Trump could perjure himself because “truth isn’t truth.”

Post-truth is a murky concept, but it should not be confused with a lie. Post-truth is much more devious and dangerous to the democratic fabric of our society. The prefix “post” in post-truth refers to the claim that a specified idea has become redundant and therefore can safely be discarded. Post-truth is the belief that truth is no longer essential, that truth has become obsolete.

We can cope with politicians lying, but we cannot afford the risk of allowing politicians to delegitimise truth.

The author, Vittorio Bufacchi, is a Senior Lecturer at the Dept of Philosophy, University College Cork, Republic of Ireland. (From: The Conversation, January 24, 2020.)