Paradoxical truths of an isolationist empire
In the photograph, I’m wearing a gas mask and 3D glasses that I knew, if it came down to it, would not protect my eyes from the police’s buckshot. My mother is next to me, we’re riding the elevator in her building, going down to Tahrir. The police had attacked a protest and, back then, when the police attacked — everyone went out to fight.
I posted the photo on Flickr as a joke. A few days later it reappeared in a Facebook album, along with dozens of other pictures of friends and activists collected from around the internet. Look at the spies and collaborators trying to burn down our country, screamed the page. Look, they have full plates of food while they claim to be working for the poor. Look, they drink beers when they claim to be Muslims. Look, this traitor and his mother are wearing Palestinian scarves, proof they’re working for Hamas. Friends flicked through the album and the comments and we laughed at them. We were the victorious Egyptian revolution and these were the fringe crackpots watching from their computers at home, alone, at night.
Almost exactly five years later, I am sitting on my computer in my apartment in Brooklyn, the revolution long defeated, alone and falling deeper into the online tunnels of the triumphant alt right.
Look, these anti-Trump protests are planned, they have scheduled paid events all the way through to inauguration. Obama’s going to declare Martial Law. Look, anti-Trump demonstrations are actually Democratic Party rallies paid for by foreign far left wing anti-American billionaires behind Black Lives Matter. Look, the rioters and protesters are getting US$15 an hour.
Protestors in Egypt were also paid, but in buckets of KFC.
Why, when we have all been aware of the failures of neoliberalism and the crimes of neo-imperialism for so long, were people so surprised?
In the last three years I’ve watched Sisi’s extermination of Egyptian political life, my country of birth vote for Brexit and, now, a quarter of the American electorate put a white supremacist in the White House. All three places shared patterns of collective shock, confusion and grief, as people realize how little they actually know about so many of their compatriots.
Each have their own unique circumstances, but in common is a fearful and reactionary middle class endorsing a populist nationalism in the hope of securing their own advantages. But why, when we have all been aware of the failures of neoliberalism and the crimes of neo-imperialism for so long, were people so surprised?
Part of the answer is in how the internet has changed how we perceive and interact with the world. For years Facebook and Google have been claiming that they are connecting the planet into an ever-closer ecosystem of shared information and increasing openness. The techno-utopians of Silicon Valley claim to have created a global forum for the 21st Century, the ultimate democratization of information and, therefore, power. But the truth is that an unparalleled global apparatus has been erected to tap profits out of the potentially limitless well of human emotions. Each click on Facebook is worth money, each share, each post, is a piece of data that builds your profile, improves Facebook’s offer to advertizers and molds you into a better consumer.
In this cyber-Darwinian digital ecology Donald Trump is the super-predator. To Facebook, a post that doesn’t excite, anger, scare or entertain is useless. But Trump’s histrionic statements are amplified by tens of thousands of retweets; mockery, revulsion and reverence all reifying him equally. Behind Trump comes an online volunteer corps of meme-artists, vloggers, truthers, bored teenagers, angry moms and 4channers. Outside the ideological fold are the digital counterfeiters, the media sensationalists, the teenagers in Macedonia ripping and remixing pro-Trump news stories and conspiracy theories that attract hundreds of thousands of reactions. All are constantly pulling new users into the self-contained and self-strengthening digital ecosystem.
What is a truth on Facebook and what is a lie? How many avatars are you in a room with at any one time? Is that the real face, name, sex of the person I’m talking to? Online, it’s as easy to believe something as it is to dismiss it and this has been to Trump’s immeasurable advantage. Donald Trump was only labeled a racist when he went up against Hillary’s machine, his friendship with Putin takes the world back from the brink of a nuclear war and claims of sexual assault are propagated by hypocrites who willfully ignore Bill Clinton’s misdemeanors. In this online world mainstream media has been entirely discredited and truth is decided by each individual.
Trump is the prime generator of such fluid, individualized truth. Shortly after the results were in the President Elect tweeted:
Just had a very open and successful presidential election. Now professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 11, 2016
Nine hours later he wrote:
Love the fact that the small groups of protesters last night have passion for our great country. We will all come together and be proud!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 11, 2016
Which is the truth? Both and neither. Trump constantly deals in such parallax truths — whereby each statement holds different meanings for different audiences, each position adaptable to the moment he’s in. The election was rigged, but it was overcome with mass participation. Trump’s supporters are an underground movement of unmatchable strength. He loves his country, but why would he pay a dime more tax than he has to? America is the greatest country on earth and it is falling apart at the seams.
While @BetteMidler is an extremely unattractive woman, I refuse to say that because I always insist on being politically correct.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 28, 2012
Neither Sisi, the Daily Mail nor Trump invented the parallax truth.
In Egypt, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi used protests to oust his political rival then outlawed protesting. Sisi will save the economy if enough people make donations to a bank account he personally controls. Sisi will build a new capital city in the desert that everyone knows will never break ground. Sisi dug a minor canal that rivals the great engineering feats of mankind. Sisi would never harm another Egyptian, unless it was in defense of Egypt. When faced with evidence of the military’s massacres, the pro-stability reactionary conservative can simply shrug and blame Photoshop.
The architects of Brexit did not actually believe their own narratives — forcing Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage to both quickly resign in the face of unexpected victory. Farage unveiled anti-immigrant posters reminiscent of Nazi propaganda while claiming it’s The Establishment that smears him as a racist. The newspapers that howled for secession lamented about the devastation of the sterling, they demand walls be thrown up to keep out refugees, then pretend to mourn the children that drown at sea.
Neither Sisi, the Daily Mail nor Trump invented the parallax truth. Trump’s rhetorical pivots are entirely in line with the government’s messaging since 9/11 — America is the strongest country on earth and America is in constant mortal danger. America is an isolationist empire of ethical torturers. It is the guardian of human rights that drone-bombs weddings. It is the land of the free, built by slaves, holding a quarter of the world’s prisoners. It is a surveillance state erected to protect your freedoms. It is democratic destruction in the name of known unknowns.
Yes We Can. But we won’t.
Is it any wonder that so many people have never been more desperate to invoke a mythological past of comprehensible truths when they have been forced to live for so long in this equally fictitious present of elite illusion?
Why should the liberals be happy for the NSA, Guantanamo, drone warfare and the emergence of a global superclass to be acceptable realities under Obama and unimaginable horrors under Trump? Why shouldn’t a new set of beliefs be erected to counter such hypocrisy? And who better to raise the bar than the master-builder himself? While Hillary is micro-managed to android flawlessness, Trump tweets his mind from the toilet at 2 am. Hillary has lived her life in public office, but he has lived his life on reality TV — perhaps the only fragment of mass media that actually seems real anymore (though, of course, is staged just enough to make it seem real). His twitter handle even begins with the word @real. Trump has spent his life constructing his own parallel reality — and now the electorate wants in.
“Fascism”, Walter Benjamin wrote in 1936, “attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves.”
Trump allows that expression to happen — and will certainly not be dismantling capitalism. The reality that he has erected of himself now extends outwards like a canopy to shelter and echo back his supporters’ expression — of anger and resentment and everything that’s been building up over years of being silenced by political correctness.
The Southern Poverty Law Centre has recorded over 200 incidents of harassment or intimidation since the election.
But such reports are dismissed on the digital walls of Trump’s supporters — in part because it has never been easier to ignore ideas and create new truths in their place. Truths that only become truer with each Like. While Facebook claims to be creating a globalized world of digital connectivity it is actually balkanizing users into individualized ideological islands of mutually re-enforcing beliefs and fears. I think it, therefore it is true. The world has never been more Cartesian. I am blinded to the realities around me, burning only with envy at an estranged lover’s perfect eggs benedict #brunch #healthyliving #organic #yum or raging at spoiled, self-obsessed tyrannical #libtard defenders of black privilege #MAGA.
On the night of Trump’s election Mark Zuckerberg posted that he was “feeling hopeful.” After the media began to scrutinize Facebook’s potential role propelling a celebrity con artist into the Presidency he offered the meaningless platitude that he believes that “people are good” — so Facebook should therefore not be held accountable for any “not good” aberrations of behavior.
It has never been easier to ignore ideas and create new truths in their place.
Facebook says it has now banned fake news sites. But there is still much to be watchful of in an online community deeply infiltrated and exploited by security agencies and a corporation with a track record of privacy violations, participation in NSA surveillance programs and collaboration with governments in the US, UK, Turkey, Israel, Pakistan and India. Even more worryingly, Facebook routinely experiments in improving its near-celestial level of control over our collective global psychology as Zuckerberg strives to fulfil his megalo-messianical ambitions of leading us all on a “journey to connect the world.”
Yet Facebook has become the principal tool for political organization today. A tool that could, one day, simply be switched off for certain people, places, keywords or, more likely, algorithmically altered to influence users’ political perception of the world around them. The coming years should see a generation of activism and radical thought unmatched since the 1960s. But even without direct censorship or corporate interference, users still have to overcome the obstacles of data-driven feedback loops, isolated online communities, deep surveillance, over-inflated attendance estimations, shortened attention spans, conspiracy-theorizing, physical disengagement and mutually-fortifying malaise.
And as to the newly triumphant. Will they know what their new president is really doing? Will they care? Citizens of the West have long been conditioned to de-empathize with the victims of their political compromises and economic comforts and the current construction of the internet only makes it easier to ignore, then deny and then ultimately endorse Trump’s coming actions. It can all, in the end, be Photoshop.