On the invention of fake news

Among the pleasures of the “lockdown” or quarantine, when one tires of all the breaking tedious news from the present, is to stretch out and read — about great plagues and catastrophes of the past. They put us cosseted bourgeois to shame. As pandemics go, ours is a luxury that few other societies could afford, and on which none until recently would have much remarked. Contemporary, or near-contemporary accounts, from Procopius to Boccaccio to Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, are among those I happen to have on my shelves. They will have to do while bookstores and libraries are closed. There are Internet editions, of course, but one must not read them, or one will go blind.

Until recently (say, the last few centuries), there were no official instructions to deal with plagues. Things like “social distancing” evolved on their own, very very quickly. The idea of “infection” sprang from easy observation, and is therefore quite ancient. Then, as now, you lived or you died.

I mentioned Defoe especially because he is like a modern journalist: he makes everything up. But he has gone to some trouble to find good sources, and is consistently plausible. Older writers are slowed by their obsessions with fact and accuracy. In this respect, we might say there has been a continuous decline from Herodotus to the New York Times, except, it was more like a sudden precipitous drop, wherever it occurred. In past times, even rulers needed some reliable information about their (much smaller or less populous) domains; today, as we see most starkly in Red China, a totalitarian dictator has only to give the themes, and vast departments of his loyal scribes will copy and embellish, in both Eastern and Western media.

Defoe, too, marks a boundary. In the 18th-century, at the flourishing of the Enlightenment, the novel and hack journalism were born, as twins. They separated generically, but not in spirit. The ancient entertainment of “the tale” was replaced by the modern “narrative.” A new cult of empathy and sensitivity were part of the afterbirth. The idea that we should feel “as if we were there” anticipated television by two centuries or so. The replacement of reality, by virtual reality, did not, as we assume, require advanced technology. Instead it required only a desire to fake it. By now, almost all human experience is fake. The body has, as it were, flipped over in its grave.

Let me reveal the secret. It could be condensed in the phrase, “with freedom comes responsibility.” This latter necessarily involves a humble appreciation of truth, as something external to oneself, which cannot long be manipulated. I am a clinger to this essentially mediaeval view, upon which our conception of civic liberty used to hang. The free man, as opposed to the serf or slave, is under an obligation not from his master, but from God, to behave well. Those who do not believe in God, or who perhaps think they do but would never allow it to be tested, look to a human master, instead.

Through our modern cult of leadership, master tells us what to believe. He may not even believe it himself — in fact, he usually doesn’t — but he has seized the monopoly on human responsibility. He knows that his subjects are depending on him, and that if he were to die or be overthrown, the entire universe would come to an end. That is why he considers himself so important.

In this we detect the root of our modern political alignments, first formed in the later Middle Ages, in the battles between “realists” and “nominalists.” To oversimplify recklessly, the first group is persuaded that certain things are true, because they are true, and therefore we have to live with them; the second group, that our truths are of human manufacture. That is why words have ever been crucial to this “Left” — because words connote meaning, and finally create it. Something that didn’t exist can be made into “a thing.” God, by comparison, has a pro forma existence, at best. If He made the world, He left it to us, promptly; by now He is not The Word, but words. If we take away his name (“the separation of church and state”), He will evaporate.

But this is what I like about the great plagues and catastrophes of history, and like to read about them. They are our assurance that reality is real; that it always has the power to impose itself, in disregard of our planning. That we didn’t make it up.

And beyond this, disaster is our assurance that in the long political contest, between freedom and slavery — between those who ask to be left alone, and those who demand power — the latter are the garbage.