If you’re currently immersed in season one of Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot, and wish to preserve the suspense surrounding its narrative, then the opening of this article is probably not for you.
But if you aren’t too bothered about discovering the conclusion of ten gripping episodes in a couple of sentences, or simply have no idea of what Mr. Robot is, then let me begin.
In the aftermath of the ‘5/9 attack’, a hack orchestrated by Elliot – the show’s main protagonist – that brings down a dystopian conglomerate known as E Corp (which in turn brings down the USA’s entire consumer credit industry, eradicating all debt), the company’s CEO, Philip Price, is told to resign.
Hearing this, Price does that typical draconian corporate overlord thing of leaning back in his chair and looking into the distance, before telling a story – a story I will share with you all now.
“In the fallout of the Great Depression,” he begins, “FDR closed all the banks for a bank holiday. And then he reopened them in stages when they were ‘reported’ to being sound.
“Later, historians discovered what we all now know – that those reports were lies. Nevertheless, it worked. It worked because the public believed the government had everything under control.
“You see, that is the business model of the American dream. Every business day, when that market bell rings, we con people into believing in something.”
He concludes ominously: “As long as the con works… we can get people to do whatever we want.”
The point of this story, I guess, is that society is – and always has been – able to function on the pretext of a lie, as opposed to any solid facts.
I mean, fast-forward to the present day and the same principle applies. Think back to the months leading up to the EU referendum – that bile-spewing cacophony of disregard and slander; a seemingly endless barrage of conflicting statistics and right wing sentiments, ending, of course, in one of the worst practical jokes ever – the decision to actually leave the EU.
A leading symbol of those murky few months will always be that famous ‘promise’ made by the Leave movement: to siphon the £350m given to the EU each week and inject every single penny of it into a wilting NHS.
Such a guarantee was, as hilariously admitted by Nigel Farage in the aftermath, completely baseless, never even likely to be fulfilled.
But did it matter? After all, it worked, didn’t it? It convinced enough people and, in turn, Leave won. Farage may have looked ridiculous on national television, but do you really think that bothered him?
All that’s required, it seems, is the appearance of a fact, a statistic of some sort, providing an illusion of objectivity. But I’m not saying anything new here. Of course politicians – along with the supervening Murdoch-infected tabloid industry – lob false facts in our direction.
But it seems as if the world is plunging even further into the doldrums of blatant fabrication, so much so that even the appearance of a fact is no longer needed.
Take, for example, everyone’s favourite wotsit-faced demagogue across the pond – Donald Trump. An abhorrent individual, I know, and yet somewhat fascinating at the same time: he has managed to bend the axioms of what can be considered acceptable, of what can actually inform political ideology, to the extent that the idea of an objective, knowable fact is about as incongruous in America as a pot-smoking Stalinist.
Charles Sykes, a conservative activist who, like all conservative activists, thrives off complete untruths, recently admitted himself that things have gone too far.
When Trump says something racist or blatantly untrue, he points out, there is no demand for him to retract it. Rather, his supporters actually expect him to defend it, branding him as a sell-out if he doesn’t.
“We’ve created this monster,” he adds. And make no mistake – this monster is making its way onto our shores. A brief look at Prime Minister’s Question Time illustrates this point in glaring fashion: you’ve got Jeremy Corbyn – poor Jezza, just trying (in my opinion) to be an honest, nice politician – at the dispatch box, with hundreds of sneering egocentrics ready to pounce at any moment, raising serious points on housing, backed up by genuine facts, and what does he get in return? A prepared gag from Theresa May; a prepared gag about ‘Train-gate’, for God’s sake; a piece of crass slander excreting over legitimate facts and concerns.
Reflecting on this exchange, Owen Bennett, a political reporter for the Huffington Post UK, noted that May “misjudged” PMQS. The sad reality, though, is that the opposite is true. May’s complete ignorance of facts, of real problems, electing instead to spew meaningless calumny is entirely in keeping with today’s political climate.
It reminds me of a wonderful moment in Orson Welles’ F for Fake, where François Reichenbach says to Clifford Irving: “Enough of the truth; tell us the real story.” Like with Irving, famous for his fake autobiography of Howard Hughes, the current status quo has no regard for truth or facts.
So the answer, I guess, is no – facts don’t matter, and the damage as a result could be irreversible. If we refuse to agree on – or just ignore – a simple framework of objective facts, the ideological divide between the right and left can never be solved.
And this, no doubt, eradicates the possibility of cooperation in politics, and possibly democracy as we know it today.
By Leo Nieboer (@leo_nieboer), co-editor, 18