U.S. President Donald Trump's auspicious first day in office saw him return to one of his favourite topics: Size – and in particular, how his is bigger than everyone else's.
This time it was the size of his inaugural crowd. So White House press secretary Sean Spicer dutifully trotted out and harangued the incredulous media, insisting that "this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period." That was just one of five falsehoods Mr. Spicer told in five minutes, for an impressive average of a lie a minute.
But not so fast. Irrepressible Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway then insisted that those weren't lies; they were, rather, "alternative facts." Sure the media relied on empirical evidence, on photographs and public-transit ridership, to conclude that the crowd wasn't nearly as large as that of former president Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration. But the Trump administration relied on, well, they relied on something I'm sure. And besides, the President's supporters will believe him, so that's the truth for them.
Think I'm exaggerating? Think again: Late this past year, in response to Mr. Trump's claims that millions of people voted illegally, Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes declared that Mr. Trump's claims "amongst a certain crowd – a large part of the population – are truth," while "those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say those are lies."
That's not the best part. Ms. Nell Hughes came to that conclusion after stating that people "say facts are facts – they're not really facts … everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There's no such thing, unfortunately, any more as facts."
So The X-Files notwithstanding, the truth isn't out there. It's in here, in each of us, as we decide what counts as truth based on our political or other interests. You probably think that's absurd, unless you've spent the past few decades in a university, in which case you see where I'm going with this.
It was, after all, the modern university, that bastion of left-wing thought, that set the stage for Mr. Trump's inauguration. During the Reagan years, the university found a new champion called postmodernism, that much ballyhooed, but also much caricatured and condemned, philosophy that provides justification for the Trump administration's tortuous relationship with the truth.
Although not all postmodernists agree with each other – or even agree on being called postmodernists – most do agree that the Enlightenment project – with its lofty claims about the idea of universal truth and our ability to discover it – was a failure.
Rather, postmodernists stress that no one possesses a "view from nowhere," a "God's eye" view of the world. We are all, alas, trapped within a certain perspective, a perspective informed by our own interests, beliefs, goals and aspirations. One cannot therefore speak of universal truth; truth is necessarily local, relativized to specific individuals or communities.
Similarly, we shouldn't speak of facts – or at least of the facts – since we have no way of accessing the world independently of our own perspective. Instead, we ought to speak of interpretation, which, wouldn't you know it, is exactly what Scottie Nell Hughes counselled us to do.
Now of course, most people do continue to believe in universal truth, but postmodernists would caution that this is simply because "hegemonic" communities – Corporate America, government, Big Science – have the power to force their version of the truth on everyone else. Postmodernism is, at its core, a left-wing theory, a theory meant to liberate oppressed communities from the dominance of the ruling classes.
Until now. The Trump administration's wholesale adoption of postmodernist thinking affirms that two can play that game. Indeed, Mr. Trump and his surrogates have signalled that they intend to counter the media's version of truth with their own alternative facts, the "truth" from their perspective. It's not yet clear who will win, but we can be certain that truth will be the loser.
For as long as postmodern thinking holds sway, we might just as well forget about facts and falsehoods. After all, if you can't tell the truth, then you can't tell a lie either.