Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art

Wellcome Collection, London NW1, Infinitas Gracias: Mexican miracle paintings until 26 February

This exhibition is dedicated to the votive tradition in Mexico. Mexican votives are small paintings usually made on tin roof tiles or plaques. They show humble individuals asking a saint for help, who are then protected from sickness, danger or death. More than 100 votive paintings will be displayed, taken from five collections held by museums in Mexico. Other sources like news reports, photographs, film and interviews, make Infinitas Gracias a fascinating and comprehensive look at votives.

Comedy

Soho Theatre, London W1, Eugene Mirman and Pretty Good Friends 7-9 and 12-15 October

According to his website, Eugene Mirman is a "comedian and hero who lives in Brooklyn". Mirman's humour is charmingly silly and he is best-known as Eugene the landlord in Flight of the Conchords. He is also the voice of Gene in Fox's animated series Bob's Burgers. The evening takes a varied format of short films, music, comedy and special guests.

Music

Hammersmith Apollo, London W6, Seasick Steve 8 October

Widely-known as Seasick Steve, Steven Gene Wold is an American blues musician. A winner of the MOJO Award for Best Breakthrough Act, Seasick Steve is a great live performer, famous for his three-string Trance Wonder guitar. Wold is widely-travelled and has lived in 56 different houses in 25 years, and his life experience comes across in his raw blues sound. He will play an array of past material and songs from his latest album You Can't Teach an Old Dog New Tricks.

Talks

The Royal Institution of Great Britain, London W1S, The Biggest IQ Test 12 October

The New Scientist launched a test in October 2010 to measure intelligence. It became exceptionally popular, with 100,000 people across the world answering it. The results of the biggest IQ test of all time show that there is not a single general form of intelligence. Roger Highfield and one of leading neuroscientist Adrian Owen will discuss the results and the influence of age, computer games and other factors on IQ. Standard tickets are priced £10, concessions are £7 and Ri Members are £5.

Theatre

The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, Cirque Éloize: iD, 12-15 October

iD is a love story set in a city, made up of exciting circus arts and urban dance. Based in Montreal, Cirque Éloize have performed across the world in more than 30 countries. The first week of their show will be held in the brand new Marlowe Theatre, which opened on 4 October. The project began in 2009 when the old Marlowe Theatre - originally a 1930s cinema - was demolished.

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Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era