By Gurnam Singh | OPINION |
For sure, aesthetics, which finds its expression in secular and religious forms, is what nourishes our subjective selves, intellectual curiosity, imagination and creative impulse. It is impossible to imagine human existence devoid of language, culture, and art. But, it is material reality that determines if we live or die; even academics like me, who ply the aesthetics of writing, need to eat, pay our bills and have money to purchase the devices through which we communicate our ideas. Put another way, if our brain is starved of oxygen and blood, then our minds become extremely limited, if not extinguished altogether.
Contrary to some philosophical beliefs, we are real and the world in which we experience our existence is real. Indeed, it was the assertion that existence is simply illusory that constitutes a central cirque of the prevailing Brahmanical world view by Guru Nanak and Sikh teachings more generally. According to Sikhi, the visible world (Kudrat) and the laws of nature that govern material existence is a manifestation of the universal divine entity, and therefore real, but not finite. That is to say, the world of mass, form, space, time and motion is real. However, most critically, as science itself has revealed, what we can detect, measure and comprehend represents only one transient aspect of reality and not the totality of existence.
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And therefore to abandon reason, rationality, empiricism and truth is not advisable and can potentially leave the door open for reactionary ideas and conspiracy theories to flourish. But it seems that, for a complex set of reasons, humanity as reached a point where any consensus about what constitutes reality or truth is being seriously undermined in what is characterised as a ‘post truth’ world. If this is indeed the case, then we all need to heed the thoughts of Timothy Snyder (2019) who in his book ‘On Tyranny’ argues, ‘post truth’ is ‘pre-fascism’ and that the abandonment of facts can lead to the abandon of freedom. And most importantly this state of affairs can leads us down a slippery slope towards fascism.
In a previous age, though coming at this question from a different angle, the philosopher Walter Benjamin makes a similar observation. Fascism, he argues, “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 rights, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property.” (Walter Benjamin (1936) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction).
Though Benjamin was reflecting on Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in the 1930’s, which he witnessed first hand, his observations that fascism both feeds and feeds off the aesthetics of discontent is exactly what Is happening in the US today Trump, India under Modi and in many other, though importantly not all, ‘countries’ of the world. There is no doubt that a resurgence of authoritarian nationalism, majoritarianism and nativism is losing a serious challenge to liberal democracy.
The key passage in Benjamin’s analysis is ‘Fascism 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 rights.” Here Benjamin is pointing out that fascists are not really interested in improving ordinary peoples lives; they are simply interested in building solidarity through fermenting resentment, something that was evident in abundance during the storming of the US Senate building by white supremacists who had been fed a diet of lies and untruths by Donald Trump, who for the past 5 years during his election campaign and subsequent presidency.
In reality, fascists like Trump are not interested in equality or redistribution of wealth upwards, but consolidating power in the hands of a few. And they trade in a post truth aesthetic to comfort and ultimately deceive the victims of oppression. In this regard, ‘post truth’ is the new opium of the masses. And because the appeal is to ‘faith’ in a messiah or dictator, rather than reasoned policies, one can see a close relationship between extreme nationalism, fundamentalism (secular or religious), racism and fascism and new age pseudoscience.
Some argue that the ‘post truth’ zeitgeist is a direct consequence of social media and the collapse of print media and objective independent journalism. However, a counter argument might be that there has never been a period where the media has been totally free and in some senses it is much freer now that in the past. However, there is the problem of eco chambers which can easily be created in social media platforms. The real problem is the way our educational system, as a consequence of neoliberal reforms, has been reduced to training for employment opportunities rather than to nurture curiosity, criticality and creativity.
And so, to those who find themselves drawn towards the rhetoric of the likes of Trump and Modi, all I can say, don’t just listen to their words, observe their actions! Let’s not forget that whilst talking about uplifting the poor of India, Modi has actually abandoned the farmers, who make up over 60% of the population. As for Trump, after inciting his followers to storm to the US Senate he set off in the opposite direction and later put out a statement condemning their actions! Modi is no friend of the vast majority of ordinary Hindus and Trump has no regard to the many many white supremacists, who have suffered badly from his incompetence and policies.
In a world where information is being generated in an exponential scale, tragically, real knowledge and truth is being drowned out and our lives are being reduced to simply consuming opinions rather than critically engaging in truth claims. And so, my appeal to those trapped in dead end of post truth thinking, try to nurture an attitude of respective curiosity, do not to take anything your read on face value, engage critically with ideas, seek out alternatives and only then decide what you think. Belief must come after reason otherwise it becomes blind faith.
[Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK. He can be contacted at Gurnam.firstname.lastname@example.org]
* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.
The dangerous rise of fascism in India (Asia Samachar, 10 Jan 2021)