The old media-academia nexus of the Left would have you believe that truth itself is in jeopardy in contemporary times, when in reality it is only their hegemony that is in danger.
Despite the shoddy research methodology of BBC’s recent report on fake news, ideological bias and name-shaming limited to the right side of the ideological spectrum (which implicated BBC itself as a fake news peddler and led to multiple amendments of the report), we would have still applauded BBC’s attempt as an exercise in ‘speaking truth to power’, only if, it was the truth that was being spoken, and to the powerful.
As far as power is concerned, none of those listed by BBC as fake news peddlers in its report matched the world’s largest international broadcaster in revenue, number of employees, connections and funding. In fact, the cumulative Twitter following of the 32 handles listed is less than 30 per cent of one of the many handles of BBC (@BBC). Many of those named by BBC in its report are young, common citizens with no formal affiliation to any political party or media organisation.
It seems that BBC is the ‘power speaking to people’ rather than ‘speaking truth to power’. Nonetheless, it is heartening to see the spotlight back on truth, thanks to the rise of right-wing leaders all over the democratic world.
From US, Italy, Poland to India and Brazil, intellectuals are in a frenzy over the rise of these ‘neo-Fuhrers’ powered by the echo chambers of social media. Millions and millions of fake news peddlers and trolls mock any unfavourable opinion and opinion-giver and the vast sea of polarising rhetoric swallows any sensible discourse, they lament. As if the scientific characterisation of the current epoch as Anthropocene wasn’t depressing enough, the mighty intellectuals of our times have declared that we are indeed living in the age of post-truth. If the outrage of our intellectuals is commensurate with the gravity of the situation, then the phenomena of post-truth must be deeply investigated, starting with ‘truth’ itself.
It was probably only after the Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years ago that humankind could afford to (and also needed to, since agriculture is a prospective activity) systematically care about ‘truth’. The revolution produced food surplus, which could be used for pursuits beyond biological necessities. For the first time, man could consistently invest in producing something more than children, stone tools, fire and cave paintings – knowledge. In this sense, agriculture marked a definitive moment in the history of human progress.
However, the history of humankind post Agricultural Revolution is also a tale of gradual dis-empowerment of individual in favour of organisations. As societies became complex, the power to define ‘truth’ slipped out of an individual’s hands.
Common peasants who comprised 90 per cent of the population were too busy doing the backbreaking work in the fields, producing surplus for poets, kings and scholars, who in turn produced truths for former’s consumption. Prophets of god-centred religions came and gave a concise book of truths for millions of people to follow, so did the prophets of humanistic religions that arose in the modern era, like Karl Marx.
When the next defining moment of history after agriculture, Industrial Revolution, arrived, it didn’t just revolutionise the process of production of goods but also ‘truths’. Fuelled by enlightenment thinking, industries of knowledge production came up everywhere, mass-producing and disseminating truths at an unprecedented scale and pace. Universities, colleges, peer-reviewed journals, scholarly conferences, media conclaves are all a machinery of this industry.
The modern industries of truth production are a double-edged sword. On one hand they make international collaboration on gravitational waves and Higgs Boson possible, on the other, colonialism and genocide. Colonial academia manufactured the truths of ‘effeminacy’ of the inferior brown Indians, ‘oriental despotism’ and biological superiority of the white race that left neither Albert Einstein nor Mahatma Gandhi untouched and the mass-production of stereotypes by Nazi knowledge industry led to the murder of two-thirds of European Jews within five years (1941-1945).
It is quite unnerving that structures dedicated to truth production in society can cause such destruction. It was probably the violence and bloodshed caused by these that caused Michel Foucault to declare that there is no such thing as truth, only ‘truth effects’, no such thing as knowledge, only discourses of power.
Even if Foucault is right, dispensing entirely with the truth and structures of truth production, as described above, is impossible as for all practical purposes, the pursuit of truths keeps fuelling the engine of progress. Also, who knows if such cynicism would create more problems than solve. Until we resolve the above conundrum, we can seek succour in the plurality of opinions and fair debate in the intellectual ecosystem. It is such an ecosystem that has the creative tension required for progress, the mechanisms not only to purge defective thoughts and nurture good ones but also resolve the most contentious issues of society without degeneration into violence.
It is the churning of the ksheersagar, the sea of knowledge by the Mandara of intellect that produces amrit, and at least two sides are required for this churning. Does Indian industry of knowledge production, our academia, have it?
All developed democracies of the world which our scholars often look up to, have a well-established right wing. If there is UC Berkeley, there is also Dartmouth. If there are scholars like Noam Chomsky, there are others like Thomas Sowell. If the Left forms a part of the mainstream discourse, so does the Right. There, the debate on mandating gender pronouns has Jordan Peterson on one side and A W Peet on the other, both professors in the University of Toronto, both published authors, whose works are taught in classrooms.
In India, media channels invite Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson to debate a Delhi University professor and actor Shahrukh Khan to debate Islamic preacher Zakir Naik.
A fair debate can only happen between equals, and in most developed democracies, so is the case. Compared to this, the ideological capture of Indian academia by Left wing stands out like a sore thumb.
Surprisingly, author Ramachandra Guha, who certainly isn’t a troll, has himself conceded that there are “very few right wing intellectuals in India”. Saying so is probably unfair, if not arrogant, but Guha has indeed struck the right chord in that hardly any right wing intellectual is a part of mainstream Indian academia.
How did this come to be? Are we supposed to believe that it was an innocent process whereby Marxists captured the academic space to complete annihilation of the right wing thought? Certainly not, especially for the fact that Marxists have been thoroughly rejected by Indian masses again and again in popular elections.
The leftist capture of Indian academia, like most hegemonies, was a political feat.
In a political system, even opposing forces tend to reach an equilibrium over time – a set of status-quoist common minimum agreements. These are the basic requirements of engagement, even if the engagement is competitive. British and French colonial empires were fierce opponents who fought bitterly over colonies, both, however, invested in hegemony of Eurocentric ideas. Similarly, Christians and Muslims vehemently accuse each other of not being a true monotheist, all the while agreeing that monotheism is superior to polytheism.
Post Independence, Congress and Marxists, the two dominant forces of the time, reached a similar transactional equilibrium whereby the former won the Parliament and political power, while latter settled for academia and intellectual power. With in-principle agreement over the infallibility of communist thought, the resulting political-academia complex disagreed only on when, where and how to implement communist ideas in India.
This debate between Fabian and Marxist left create an illusion of choice. The current debates between Ramachandra Guha and Harsh Mander over burqas or Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd and Shashi Tharoor over Hinduism are a remake of the old play. The dialogues may be new but the underlying script remains the same – all evils of the Left can be cured by more Left.
Sorry, but a debate between 7.5 Left and 9.2 Left is not a real debate. At best, it is foreplay-ish fighting, and at worst it is an instrument to further ideological hegemony by filling the ecosystem to the full by echo of leftist thoughts, some more moderate than others. These kinds of tactics continuously keep shifting the zero mark towards Left and the ideology becomes commonsensical morality. On the other hand, standards to be ‘extreme’ on the Right side keep falling.
Hedley Bull, an Australian scholar, said that inquiry has its own morality dissociated from outcomes. The impulse of Congress-Marxist complex in India was just the opposite. It set out to fit history into an ideological mould, sanitising and co-opting figures like Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, skipping some portions of history and over emphasising others.
These incestuous debates proved harmful for the Left itself. While academic barons kept climbing the ladder of success, leftist thought declined. It failed to gain ground even when people were severely disenchanted with capitalism after the economic crisis of 2008. Currently, the Left has no choice but to survive as a parasite over identity politics, sucking the blood out of host-social movements.
With total power of agenda setting, Left obliterated not just the inconvenient facts and figures from the discussion table, but lived experience and everyday realities of people.
To cover the length and breadth of the pathologies generated by leftist hegemony is outside the scope of this article, suffice to say that had the academicians maintained intellectual integrity and a bipartisan approach, most of the burning issues of today, from National Register of Citizens in Assam to politics over Ram Temple could have been amicably resolved.
Intellectuals are the conscience keepers of the society, mediating between the unruly mobs and power-hungry politicians. They are the fertile soil in which the seeds of different social demands germinate. If they become biased, the fundamental trust in society is shaken, and chaos ensues. When the Left was revelling in its success to have excluded unfavourable ideas, scholars and issues from the table, the grievances thus generated were coalescing to form, what would be the Frankenstein’s monster for the Left. After the decline of Congress, the political half of the post Independence politico-academia complex, the chair of leftist hegemony stands precariously on the three remaining legs:
1. Exclusive access to machines of truth production and dissemination.
2. The skills for such production viz Tharoor English.
3. The bourgeoisie in quid pro quo with the Left (Twitter, Facebook, Bollywood, Fashion brands etc).
Today, common people aren’t just passive consumers of mass-produced truths, they can also voice their experiences and opinions. They can question, challenge and debate the master-narrative. Ironically, thanks to social media, no hypocrisy goes unnoticed and multiple holes in very ‘scholarly’ mainstream works have been repeatedly exposed in India. Listing all of these would be extravagant, suffice to say, there was no such thing as the age of truth whose demise the elites are lamenting, only an age of unchallenged hegemony.
It is the prospective loss of power of agenda-setting and thought-control, of lucrative positions in universities and government that is driving them nuts.
If your quest is political, have a thick skin. As long as you were winning, the game was good; now you’re not so the rules become unfair? Aren’t you the one who wrote them in the first place?
Does this mean there is no ‘fake news’ and lies? Of course not. There are, just as there were before, only the bright shiny wrapping paper over the master narrative that made the customer feel like a proud owner of an exclusive car is being ripped by ‘trolls’ and ‘fake news’.
The elite in the academia better realise that much to their credit, the time of unquestioned hegemony is over. Moral shaming and labels can take you only so far. If the intention is to fight against fake news, start with a sincere apology. If that is not possible, don’t waste your energy and my time with constant outrage, after all, it has at least been 70 years since post-truth.