Don't Bring the Truth to a Knife Fight: A New Year's Proposal for the Left

Derek R. Ford | Politics & Government | Analysis | January 1st, 2018

The following is an excerpt from the author's new book, "Politics and pedagogy in the "post-truth" era," due out in 2018 through Bloomsbury.

Many are in shock that today that the truth doesn't seem to matter in politics. Every time U.S. president Donald Trump tweets out that a news article unfavorable to him is "FAKE NEWS!" they are aghast and disoriented. Every time he says something blatantly false, it adds a new bullet point to a list of lies and sets off a new circuit of outrage. The response is clear: we need to call out the lies and tell the truth! Educators have a crucial role to play here, for we are the ones who teach the truth to others, or who facilitate the collective realization of the truth. This analysis and proposal completely miss the mark: politics has never been about a correspondence with an existing truth. Indeed, when I hear people denounce our political scene as "post-truth," I have to wonder when exactly they think it was that politics was determined by the truth? The same goes for those who decry today's "fake news." Hasn't the media always been an arena of struggle? To claim that with Trump's election we've entered a post-truth era of fake news is to claim that the U.S. was built on truthful politics and media. Political struggle isn't really about an existing truth but rather concerns the formulation of new truths and, more importantly, the materialization of those truths. Our contemporary moment thus offers up an important opportunity for the Left to embrace political struggle, to stake out positions, and to fight to make those positions reality.

On the one hand, it seems reasonable to propose that we reject the "post-truth" designation altogether. After all, doesn't the repetition of that language serve to further entrench the liberal narrative of a democracy corrupted? I would answer this question affirmatively. But, on the other hand, we can't exhaustively determine the uses to which this language will be put and the effects that such usage will have, and maybe there's an opening here. Thus, I'd like to hang on to the "post-truth" for now, but I'd like to propose a particular conceptualization of it, one that I believe holds political and pedagogical promise as a frame for engaging in transformative praxis. To be post-truth, so I wish to suggest, is not to be "anti-truth" or even "without truth." Instead, I proffer that we understand the relationship between the "post-truth" and "the truth" in the same way that Jean-François Lyotard formulated the relationship between the modern and the postmodern.

For Lyotard, the postmodern is not a negation, annihilation, or supersession of the modern. There is no dialectic of or between either. The postmodern doesn't come after the modern, for such a progression would itself be decidedly modern. No, the postmodern "is undoubtedly part of the modern," Lyotard tells us. [1] Even Christianity has its own postmodern inflection (for who can really prove that Christ isn't a phony?)[2] The postmodern inhabits the modern, interrupting it: "The postmodern would be that which in the modern invokes the unpresentable in presentation itself, that which refuses the consolation of correct forms, refuses the consensus of taste permitting a common experience of nostalgia for the impossible, and inquires into new presentations- not to take pleasure in them, but to better produce the feeling that there is something unpresentable ."[3] The modern is that which offers up a narrative of understanding, cohesion, and unity, and the postmodern is that which interrupts it.

The post-truth designation, on this reading, might be an occasion to refuse the liberal nostalgia for the democratic and civil public sphere based on truthful exchange at the marketplace of ideas. Like the postmodern shows how the modern covers over difference and the rules and methods by which difference is accommodated or obliterated, the post-truth can agitate the political nature of truth and, more importantly, the pedagogy of truth. The post-truth, in other words, opens up a political project as well as a pedagogical one. The political project involves the power relations that compose truths, and the pedagogical project involves how we engage ourselves, each other, and the world in transformative processes.

Force in the market-place of ideas

The right wing knows all of this. They don't make appeals to the truth. They make appeals to beliefs and convictions. If those beliefs and desires contradict some set of evidence, then that evidence is fake. That is what Donald Trump means when he tweets "FAKE NEWS!" It isn't an assertion of what the truth really is (as if the news had some innate relationship to truth and constituted "the real"). It isn't an objection based on an understanding of language as neutral and objective containers of ideas, nor is it based on an understanding of language as a weapon of persuasion. Rather, the "FAKE NEWS" tweet is intended as an anticipatory interpellation. It's an assertion of belief of what should be, a performative utterance meant to organize and intensify one side-his side-of the political. To reply that the news isn't fake, that the fake news designation only applies to news that he doesn't like, news that makes his side look bad, misses the point completely. Sure, the right wing preaches about the importance of "freedom of speech," but they clearly only mean their speech. They'll attack a left-wing academic for their tweets and try to get them fired while they protest against a campus banning a neo-Nazi speaker. Recently, Trump got backlash for sharing anti-Islamic propaganda videos from a neo-Nazi group in Britain. Their veracity was first called into question and then disproven. When confronted with this, Trump's press secretary totally disregarded the attack: "Whether it's a real video, the threat is real," she said. [4]

This is why the right wing is winning: they know they have enemies and they have allies, and together they want to defeat those enemies. To defeat those enemies, they mobilize, organize, intervene, and act collectively. They imagine the future they want. They talk to each other, they create their own ideological bubbles from which to act, resist, take swings. They capture the state and wield it toward their ends. They don't care about what the other side thinks. They aren't trying to win us over. They believe in themselves and their movement. They don't think their people need to be enlightened by public intellectuals.

This isn't an embrace of relativism. I'm not saying that what is true for some is false for others or that we should never make appeals to the truth. But we can't position politics outside of the truth or pretend that our politics is derived from the truth. The truth is always framed and contextualized, and so we need to ask what certain truths are doing in certain moments, what their material effects will be. Think about what's happening in Iran right now. There are anti-government protests. There are pro-government protests. It is "people" who are at each of the protests. I can share pictures of either sets of protests, and say "support the people!" Politics is much more helpful than the truth.

None of this is to say that appeals to the truth aren't important, for they surely are. It is important to call out the lies propagated by the right wing to promote oppression and exploitation. My point is that this is a failed political strategy because it rests on the idea that there is a truth that can bridge all divisions and erase all antagonisms, something we can all agree on that transcends our structural positions in society.

I'm also not arguing that "might makes right." If I was, then I would be affirming that what is should be. My position rather is that might makes; that it is ultimately force which makes our world, not abstract ideals or transcendent truths. In his study of public space and social justice, Don Mitchell shows how "the public" is never decided a priori but is always the result of concerted action on behalf of the excluded. Certain groups, that is, only become part of the public to the extent to which they force a new configuration of the public. One of the ways Mitchell demonstrates this is by looking at the history of speech regulations in the U.S. One common thread throughout Supreme Court rulings on protests and "free speech" is the idea that "a democratic polity requires dissenting ideas; these ideas, however, have to stand or fall on their own merits as they enter into competition with other ideas; the better ideas win, but only by being tested against less worthy ideas." [5]

This is where we get to the "marketplace of ideas," which only works if we accept the market for what it actually is. Bourgeois ideologues (on the Supreme Court and everywhere) want us to think of the marketplace of ideas like they want us to think about any marketplace: a space in which different groups hang commodities with price tags and descriptions for buyers to peruse at their leisure until they decide on the one or ones they'd like to purchase. Setting aside the characterization of ideas as commodities, this is liberal ideology at its purest in that it completely ignores power, ownership, subjectivity, and history. First there is the question of who has admittance to the marketplace to buy and sell, as marketplaces are always exclusionary. Even in so-called free societies there are a host of racialized, gendered, and classed rules (e.g., dress codes, age limits) and the construction of some as "window shoppers" and others as "loiterers." Second, even if everyone was allowed to participate in the marketplace, some clearly have more capital than others and therefore can purchase preferential locations with bigger lots, recruit and fund designers, advertisers, hawks, and so on, to sell their products. They can buy out their competitors, create legislative barriers to entry, establish monopolies.

There is an even more fundamental problem with the marketplace of ideas, which is the question of determining what constitutes the competitive order in the first place, and the rules of engagement in the second place. The excluded are by definition irrational, disorderly, and without access to the marketplace. And so, as a result of struggle, Mitchell says, "the seeming irrationality of violence… becomes a rational means for redressing the irrationality of injustice, for withdrawing consent from an order that does not deserve to be legitimated." [6] The marketplace is not a site of idyllic exchange but of coercion, power, and struggle, and the capitalist marketplace was founded on slavery, genocide, and the expropriation of many by law and individual acts of terror. If this order is to be transformed then there must be a forceful disorder. The direction of that disorder will determine the character of the political thrust, but regardless of its character, without force there is no transformation. As Marx put it, "force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with the new."[7]

Derek R. Ford is an academic, organizer, and member of the Hampton Institute. His most recent book is Education and the production of space: Political pedagogy, geography, and urban revolution (Routledge, 2017).


[1] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Explained: Correspondence 1982-1985, trans. D. Barry, B. Maher, J. Pefanis, V. Spate, and M. Thomas (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988/1992), 12.

[2] Ibid., chapter 2. Here Lyotard clarifies his infamous report on knowledge and postmodernity, writing that he both oversimplified and overemphasized the category of the narrative.

[3] Ibid., 15, emphasis added.

[4] Christina Wilkie, (2017). "White House: It Doesn't Matter if Anti-Muslim Videos Are Real Because 'the Threat is Real." CNBC, 29 November. Available online: (accessed 30 November 2017).

[5] Don Mitchell, The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space (New York: The Guilford Press, 2003), 47.

[6] Don Mitchell, The Right to the City, 53.

[7] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (vol. 1), trans. S. Moore (New York: International Publishers, 1867/1967), 703.