Fake News isn’t a Truth Problem, it’s a Personhood Problem

By Kris Cohen

[In this new Age of Orange, we’ll be bringing you a series of thought-provoking pieces on the new political landscape (and the same old landscape, as well]

K Tran, The Treachery of Images, print on canvas, 50cm x 70cm, London, 2013.

Whatever else it is, fake news is a problem that will not be adequately addressed by any single discipline. It does not have a proper home. It threatens everyone but belongs to no one. It is a problem for social media no less than for the most institutionalized forms of journalism; for massive conglomerates like Fox News or The Washington Post (now owned by Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com) no less than it is for your uncle. Nor does the fake news phenomenon reside neatly in some one historical period: it is not new, but neither can it be explained away by conflating it with every other time that publicity has made truth complicated. Fake news matters because of Trump, but not only because of him. So the phenomenon is going to attract a lot of commentary, as it should. The rush to fill the void of uncertainty shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the problem is simply faddish and hollow. People are struggling to arrive at the right questions, and that kind of trial and error-style work takes time. Lauren Berlant has recently called this “genre flailing.” But the problem is even more complex than arriving at the right questions. It’s about arriving at the right scale of question. In many ways, “fake news” is but a single symptom of a far more massive destabilization, as people on every possible side of every possible political spectrum re-orient themselves to what feels like the new political realities of 2017.

Continue reading “Fake News isn’t a Truth Problem, it’s a Personhood Problem”

How Best to Not-Surrender

The first lesson I learned in resistance was to surrender. It was a hard lesson. It was the apocryphal year of 1984 and General Zia ul Haq was our leader. The General had come to power in a military coup in 1977– deposing an elected and popular Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. In short order, he had hung Bhutto, for conspiracy to commit murder and corruption and had donned the mantle of a populist cleanser of political rot. When in 1979, Soviet Union entered Afghanistan, the General became the conduit for US “resistance”.

Reagan toasted Zia in 1982 as the key architect of a peaceful South Asia (Zia, in return, requested “Spread this America, Mr. President”). Zia returned to Pakistan with the full support of United States. In August 1983, Zia revealed a theological argument for his military regime: according to God and his Prophet, as long as there is a Muslim leader pursuing a strategy of bringing an Islamic state into being, there can only be complete obedience to his rule.

In 1983, Pakistan started its resistance against the General. The “Movement for Restoration of Democracy” (MRD) emerged as an umbrella for Marxists, Progressivists, PPP, followers of pirs, provincialists, feminists, atheists– all assemble only to resist Zia. They blocked highways, took over university campuses, shut-down bazaars and ports. The poets wrote verses that could be chanted. Sufi shrines become the rallying places for mobilizations. Someone stood in front of Zia’s motorcade and flashed his privates.

Zia’s regime cracked down. The army fired bullets in streets, campuses and bazaars. Thousands disappeared. Student unions were banned. Students vanished. In November 1984, Reagan won 58.8% of the votes cast and swept back into office. Not to be out-done, on 19 December 1984, Zia ul Haq held a referendum with one single question: Did the people of Pakistan support”the Islamic ideology of Pakistan?” Yes, would mean that Zia ul Haq would be elected President for five years, by the way. Well, if you put it that way.

Zia campaigned vigorously for the “referendum”. The nationalized Radio and Television illustrated the divinity of military rule, and the rule of the militarily divine. On the 20th of December 1984, he declared victory after receiving 97.7% of 60% votes cast. Lahore surrendered. My uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbors, friends all declared widely and publicly that Zia ul Haq was the “Mard-e Haq” (Man of Truth). No one would speak, in public or private, against the General.

The second lesson I learned in resistance was to remember 1983. In 2007— after September 2001, after George W. Bush– resistance came to Pakistan as the “Lawyers Movement” against General Pervez Musharraf. This history is known to the readers of this blog, so I will tell only of the shape resistance took. Like 1983, an umbrella covered the many forms of political differences into a protected space. It was on the street– the iconic black suits of the advocates of court battling the police. It was in cultural spaces– galleries, salons, tea shops. It was online– blogs, email listservs, youtube. It flashed Musharraf– making him an object of ridicule, of shame. This time I was not too young and easily silenced. This time I learned the way and power of resistance.

The playbook of the Generals of Pakistan may seem incongruous next to that of a democratically elected Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush or Donald J. Trump. Hence, the techniques of surrendering or resistance may seem equally alien. However, do not be too quick to dismiss. Our Pakistani strongmen had much that bolsters Trump’s appeal: the love of autocrats and technocrats, the claim to clean up corruption, the mode of ‘direct speech’ that cuts through ‘bullshit’, the claim to independence from special interests, the eye for gilded portraits, the male-ness, the love for big building projects and real estate acquisitions.

When I see Trump, I understand him and I understand the ways in which my uncles in Pakistan love him. Trump speaks that language already:Oh the Theater must always be… oh the University must endure… Oh the minorities must be protected. Trump’s hierarchies (America First) and promises (Make America Great Again) are easy analogues to Zia ul Haq’s “Islam First” or Musharraf’s “Make Pakistan Moderate Again”.

Against Zia, writers and artists like Anwar Maqsood and Moin Akhtar, used stand-up and prov sketch comedy in venues like the television program “Fifty-fifty” to subvert, to transgress, to document. Being on a National Television and subject to heavy censorship, their sketches had a pre-approved “official” reading and a reading that came clearly as disruptive resistance to the viewers outside. Performance that illustrated “all politics” is performance enabled that dissatisfaction with the “real”.

Against Musharraf, the tactic of satire as resistance was amplified in wildly popular shows like “Begum Nawazish Ali” and “Hum Sab Umeed Say Hain” (We are all Expecting). Jokes carried over instant messaging apps, blogs, and emails poked fun at the self-regard of the dictator. I collected them and promised myself I would write about them one day, and I guess I will one day.

Artists, poets, teachers, writers are the first line of defense against tyranny. They are also the first targets of censorship, condemnation or disappearance– hence Dhaka University in ’68-’71, hence Karachi University in ’74-’76, hence Punjab University ’83-’85. Against Zia and Musharraf, these were the critical spaces of collaboration– between students and professors, between poets and reciters, between artists and viewers. I spent a lot of time in living rooms of my professors learning the trade of resistance. I spent a lot of time on street corners complicit in the making of shadow discourses. The classroom, the living room, the street corner were all fed by texts– our Franz Fanon, our Kishwar Naheed, our Manto.

How Best to Not-Survive

As a visually-read Muslim and an immigrant without the imagined protection of a citizenship, I stand alongside many others who contemplate a precarious and hostile future in United States. There are many reasons, and I am sure you know most, for the threat that Trump’s presidency holds for all of us. I know it will be very difficult and unbelievable and racist and sure, many are telling us that we will survive. But. I want to survive or not-survive, in a just and ethical way.

We can be sure Trump will increase manifold the mass-deportations that Obama– some 2.4 million the majority of which were ‘non-criminal’– has maintained throughout his tenure.

We can be sure Trump will intensify Obama’s drone war and assassinations of military-aged men in Pakistan or Somalia or Yemen. Trump will perhaps break the “city” barrier and those drones will fall on multi-story homes inside densely packed Karachi or Islamabad’s subruban bungalows.

We can be sure Trump will close Refugee Settlement plans from allies and victims of Iraq, Libya, Syria or Afghanistan.

We can be sure Trump will ask that Muslims inside America “do more”, starting with mandatory registrations so that their whereabouts are known and accounted for– akin to George W. Bush’s “National Security Entry-Exit Registration System” of Sep 2002 which targeted students and workers from “terror-prone countries”. (I remember my visit to security services and I remember friends who were picked up and never came back.)

We can be sure Trump will increase surveillance on Muslims like the NYPD’s decade long program. There is also no doubt that surveillance of data-traffic will be the first increment.

We can be sure Trump will make the path to citizenship harder or impossible for those same people.

We can be sure Trump will introduce legislations against veiling, against political mobilization and other ‘Un-American” activities.

We can be sure that Guantanamo will remain open and be re-populated.

In other words, let us not start with a notion that this is some great new rupture in the history of US or the world. Trump will not invent new tortures, new discriminations, new horrors. He will merely continue or expand what has happened for decades here. In fact, we even know Trump from countless roles outside of United State– from Afghanistan, Philippines, Pakistan, Nicragua, etc.– known as our “strong man”.

I grew up in Doha Qatar where, as an immigrant, my father and our family had no rights, no protections and no shield from draconian police state. I went to college in Pakistan’s Zia ul Haq where once during a simple reading of the daily newspaper, a dear friend cautioned me not to say General Saab with a mocking tone or else he would feel compelled to break our friendship. I was undocumented for many long years in United States.

As a scholar and a digital humanist, I have studied and written and thought about both the technologies of oppression and the technologies of resistance. This very site is a testament to some of those acts which emerged as the country willfully and forcefully invaded Iraq in 2003.

What we cannot do– is grant any space– intellectual or material– to isolation. We cannot survive by keeping quiet and minding our business. We cannot survive by looking out for only our interest and our concerns. We do live in perilous times, but it is incumbent on all of us to remember that the bombs have fallen elsewhere even as we loved Obama. That our victories for civic freedoms came exactly as we gave billions in military aid to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Money, power and prestige that links bombings in Yemen, migrant workers on football stadiums and Shi’a in Bahrain. Let’s not pretend that our solidarities in Ferguson and Staten Island absolve us from casting our eyes elsewhere. As Malcolm X once said, “If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad”. So pay attention to fellow intellectuals who are fighting for the same rights around the world. Resist not only the domestic policies by writing against them or canvassing against them but also global and climate policies.

There are solidarities which will matter and there are modes of being, writing, thinking and doing that will protect us and our loved ones. This site, like many others, will be a place for your thoughts and our techniques of engagement. We who can write, will write, and we who can march, will march, and we who can sing, will sing. Do our best to think outside the nation-state. Connect through distributed means. Look to our peers in India and Turkey. Create, or join, new cultural spaces; know that those domains of irony, pleasure, satire, and laughter will never succumb and cannot be subverted.

All this accompanies the daily task of being scholars, students, thinkers, artists, workers, lovers, fathers and mothers. Faiz Ahmed Faiz, in prison, once wrote:

Just as now,
since forever,
have people tangled with
oppressors

nor are their customs new
nor are our ways new

Just as now,
since forever,
have we blossomed flowers
in fire,

nor is their defeat new
nor is our victory new

(You can see Faiz recite this full poem.)

I do not quote Faiz to suggest hope and optimism. Only to indicate that the hard work of surviving is continuous historically and throughout our past. In this, we can learn and grow.