We are stepping through the looking glass


Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

As Aviv Ovadya has written in The WorldPost, open societies are headed toward a “catastrophic failure of the marketplace of ideas” with “no one believing anything, or everyone believing lies” depending on their tribal standpoint. As we step through the looking glass and spiral down the rabbit hole, what to do about this coming infopocalypse will itself become the central issue.

In a post-truth environment where nihilism vies with partisan spin, it’s not facts that matter, but who dominates the narrative that signifies those facts. The present culture wars over who will emerge as the reigning custodian of perception is the battle royale of the information age. What Plato said long ago applies in spades to our own times: Whoever tells the story, rules.

Two recent events mark the moment. When New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger sat down with President Trump to discuss fake news and the “dangerous” White House rhetoric calling the media an “enemy of the people,” they couldn’t even agree afterward on what was said at the meeting. In Mark Zuckerberg’s latest testimony before the U.S. Congress, he declared Facebook would not ban Holocaust deniers from its platform even though historical facts wholly dispute their claims. The Anti-Defamation League was quick to say he was coddling anti-Semites.

The present cultural clash over who commands the narrative, and how, has been percolating for decades, long before peer-driven social media. Back when Ronald Reagan was president, I asked his top political adviser, Lyn Nofziger, what accounted for the president’s “Teflon” shield whereby all scandals, like Iran-Contra, just rolled off his back while he remained unruffled and popular. Nofziger replied that it was because Reagan remained true to his base and its view of America — and “never read the New York Times.”

Despite the decades-long postwar ban on hate speech and Holocaust denial in Germany aimed at preventing any resurgence of intolerant nationalism, a nationalist movement, the Alternative for Germany, has gained a presence in the Bundestag for the first time since the Nazis. And its appeal is growing.

This comes as no surprise to the outcast German filmmaker, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. In an interview a quarter of a century ago, he scorned the idea of “democratic repression” as only sustaining what it seeks to staunch. At a time when the homes of immigrants were being torched, Syberberg recounted the uproar over a late-night TV program that gave a platform to a right-wing activist. “Official media opinion … has it that this man and his viewpoint should be silenced,” Syberberg said. “Yet we cannot eradicate our little Hitlers by refusing to give them the microphone. If people want a Hitler, one cannot prevent them from having him. And in fact, the repression of those views may only increase their seductiveness among those who feel left out of society already.”

Attempting to anesthetize the wound of fascism, he argued, does not heal it. Repressing “important aspects of our history … has only succeeded in nurturing the growth of an ugly, right-wing street underground.” Sooner or later, what’s underneath emerges in the mainstream. Indeed, Syberberg anticipated the situation in Germany today: the suppression of the national by the rational has only seeded its rebirth.

That’s the conundrum. Does tolerance normalize evil? Should the match be snuffed out before a fire spreads, as the German and other European laws have tried to do? Or is the opposite the case? Prairies don’t catch fire without the desiccated brush of suppressed resentment longing to be ignited.

In The WorldPost this week, Flemming Rose, the Danish editor who unleashed anger across the Muslim world in 2005 by publishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, defends Zuckerberg’s stance on free speech, which parallels the views of Syberberg.

For Rose, criminalizing Holocaust denial makes free-speech “martyrs” of deniers. Because of the very distrust of elites behind the populist revolt, bans fuel instead of defuse conspiracy theories. Censorship by authorities considered illegitimate only serve to legitimize what is being censored. In the midst of today’s culture wars, Rose fears, bans turn disputes into “dogma,” as in the historical religious battles between Catholics and the Protestant Reformation, that are beyond question no matter what the facts. This same dynamic seems at work when it comes to climate change deniers as well. To admit the facts of others is to betray your tribe.

Rose also points out the global nature of the censorship-versus-free speech conundrum in a world where we are all connected across cultural boundaries. How can free speech be universally protected on the Internet when, literally, as he notes, a sacred cow to a pious Hindu in India is only steak to a Texan cowboy?

To mix yet another metaphor, information is like a raindrop. It will just evaporate unless it falls on fertile ground. In the end, it is the context of speech determined by the narrative behind it that determines how the facts matter. The hope — and the ultimate stakes in the culture wars — is that trustworthy facts themselves win out over tribalism and dogma in establishing the story that rules.

Waste not, warm not

It surely doesn’t occur to most of us that the rotting leftovers in the back of the fridge are somehow related to the wildfires ravaging the planet this week, including above the Arctic Circle in Sweden. Chad Frischmann calls out the complicity in our lax consumer habits.

“Carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and hydrofluorcarbons (fluorinated gases used in refrigeration) are produced and emitted from food production to our refrigerators,” he writes. “And don’t forget all the metal cans, plastic bags and cardboard boxes our food comes in. By throwing away half a lasagna, half of the emissions that resulted from producing and processing, packaging, shipping, storing, picking up and cooking are also wasted. It turns out reducing food waste is one of the most important things we can do to reverse global warming.”

From Dutch windmills and dikes to syngas

From their iconic windmills and dikes to the giant locks that control floods, the Dutch are great innovators where humans meet nature. Now, as Rachel Nuwer reports from Petten, Netherlands, Dutch researchers are leading the way in processing synthetic gas derived from heating waste at extreme temperatures so they can be used as an energy source alongside geothermal and solar.

Fungus that fights smog

Writing from Bangalore, India, Sonali Prasad reports that one the main contributors to the choking haze that regularly envelops parts of India is from the burning of crop residue in the countryside. She talks to a researcher who aims to mitigate the smog by using that discarded organic material to generate power through biogas production and even as compost to grow nutritious mushrooms — and local jobs — nurtured by the decaying waste.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.