For those of you unfamiliar with it, The Colbert Report is a fake news cable show hosted by the over the top, pseudo right wing commentator Stephen Colbert. While it may be simply described as a parody of cable political talk shows (like The O'Reilly Factor) it offers an ironic look at contemporary political discourse. What strikes me is that Colbert seems to be able to sum up the cultural and political divide with one word - Truthiness:
The A.V. Club: What's your take on the "truthiness" imbroglio that's tearing our country apart?
Stephen Colbert: Truthiness is tearing apart our country, and I don't mean the argument over who came up with the word. I don't know whether it's a new thing, but it's certainly a current thing, in that it doesn't seem to matter what facts are. It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It's certainty. People love the president because he's certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don't seem to exist. It's the fact that he's certain that is very appealing to a certain section of the country. I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?
SC: Absolutely. The whole idea of authority—authoritarian is fine for some people, like people who say "Listen to me, and just don't question, and do what I say, and everything will be fine"—the sort of thing we really started to respond to so well after 9/11. 'Cause we wanted someone to be daddy, to take decisions away from us. I really have a sense of [America's current leaders] doing bad things in our name to protect us, and that was okay. We weren't thrilled with Bush because we thought he was a good guy at that point, we were thrilled with him because we thought that he probably had hired people who would fuck up our enemies, regardless of how they had to do it. That was for us a very good thing, and I can't argue with the validity of that feeling.
But that has been extended to the idea that authoritarian is better than authority. Because authoritarian means there's only one authority, and that authority has got to be the President, has got to be the government, and has got to be his allies. What the right-wing in the United States tries to do is undermine the press. They call the press "liberal," they call the press "biased," not necessarily because it is or because they have problems with the facts of the left—or even because of the bias for the left, because it's hard not to be biased in some way, everyone is always going to enter their editorial opinion—but because a press that has validity is a press that has authority. And as soon as there's any authority to what the press says, you question the authority of the government—it's like the existence of another authority. So that's another part of truthiness. Truthiness is "What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true." It's not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There's not only an emotional quality, but there's a selfish quality.
Whatever one thinks of this particular form of satire, it seems that Colbert is touching on a basic division between two distinct discursive communities - what some have called "reality based" and "faith based."
In what at first may seem like a strange association, the notion of truthiness reminds me of Foucault's distinction between the "Universal" and "specific" intellectual. In the seminal interview, Truth and Power, Foucault emphasizes the local nature of contemporary political struggles - whether they concern prisoner rights, psychiatric reform, or limiting the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In each case, the specificity of each field cultivates "experts" that require scientific credentials in order to speak and be heard. It is at the micro level of these various discursive fields that resistance to a "regime of truth" is fought. Foucault believes that this process has lead to the "politicization of intellectuals," and enabled specialized academics to become "privileged points of intersection" in the struggle over truth:
The intellectual can operate and struggle at the general level of that regime of truth so essential to the structure and functioning of our society. There is a battle "for truth," or at least "around truth" - it being understood once again that by truth I mean..."the ensemble of rules according to which the true and the false are separated and specific effects of power attached to the true," it being understood also that it's not a matter of a battle "on behalf" of the truth but of a battle about the status of truth and the economic and political role it plays. It is necessary to think of the political problems of intellectuals not in terms of "science" and "ideology" but in terms of "truth" and "power."
It seems to me that the phenomenon Foucault has described is exactly what the conservative movement has used to design its strategy to produce a new "politics of truth." Just in the terms that Colbert has discussed, the Republicans have successfully detached the power of truth (what we used to understand as "facts") from the previous social and political institutions. Now it is not a question of following the sage advice of experts and scientists; instead we need to listen to leaders who make authentic decisions with their gut and instincts. And they have done this with the help of a new cultural infrastructure: Fox News, Evangelical Mega Churches, The American Enterprise Institute, and The Weekly Standard. Truthiness is not the return to some simpler time but the effect of a complex (and diffuse) system of techniques and procedures - operating at the routine level of everyday life. Though the conservative movement looks to be in trouble politically, Truthiness would appear to have a much longer shelf life.