I don’t have any strong opinions about the Brexit decision. In general I’m in favor of functioning with the smallest possible political units; but I’m also aware that to leave the EU would be a huge step with unforeseeable consequences, which is something my conservative disposition also resists. So: no strong opinion about whether Brexit is right or wrong. But I am fascinated by the post-mortems, especially as an observer of the internet, because what the internet makes possible is the instantaneous coalescing of opinion.
So, just a few days after the referendum, intellectual Remainers already have an established explanation, a kind of Copenhagen interpretation of the events meant to yield a Standard Account: Brexiters, motivated by hatred and resentment, acted in complete disregard of facts. I feel that I’ve read a hundred variations on this blog post by Matthew Flinders already, though not all the others have warmed so openly to the idea of an “architecture of politics” meant to “enforce truthfulness.” (What should we call the primary instrument of that architecture? The Ministry of Truth, perhaps?)
I’m especially interested in Flinders’ endorsement and perpetuation of the ideas that Brexit marks the victory of “post-truth politics.” This has very rapidly become a meme — and quite a meme — and one of the signs of how it functions is that Flinders doesn’t cite anyone’s use of it. He’s not pretending to have coined the term, he’s just treating it as an explanatory given — to continue my physics analogy, something like Planck’s Constant, useful to plug into your equation to make the numbers work out.
(By the way, I suspect the seed of the “post-truth politics” meme was planted by Stephen Colbert when he coined the term “truthiness”.)
The invocation of “post-truth politics” is very useful to people like Flinders because it allows him to conflate actual disregard of facts with disregard of economic predictions — you can see how those categories get mixed up in this otherwise useful fact-checking of claims by Brexiters. When that conflation happens, then you get to tar people who suspect economic and political forecasts with the same brush you use to tar people who disregard facts altogether and go with their gut — even though there are ample reasons to distrust economic and political forecasts, and indeed a kind of cottage industry in publishing devoted to explaining why so many forecasts are wrong.
There’s no question that many votes for Brexit were based on falsehoods or sheer ignorance. But when people who belong to the academic-expertise class suggest that all disagreement with their views may be chalked up to “post-truth politics” — and settle on that meme so quickly after they receive such a terrible setback to their hopes and plans — then it’s hard for me not to see the meme as defending against a threat to status. And that matters for academic life, and for the intellectual life more generally, because the instantaneous dominance of such a meme forecloses inquiry. There’s no need to look more closely at either your rhetoric or the substance of your beliefs if you already have a punchy phrase that explains it all.