This week I have had the pleasure to attend a set of thought-provoking talks by scholars of American history, politics, literature, and philosophy in the context of a seminar organised and held at the Centro di Studi Americani (CSA, Centre of American Studies) in Rome, Italy. Targeted specifically to graduate students and PhD candidates, this annual seminar is a time-honoured tradition of the Centre, I learnt, as it has been going on since the 1950s. This year’s topic was: Self-Evident Truths, Post-Truths, and the American Myth.
Often starting from the Oxford Dictionaries definition of post-truth,1“Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. https://languages.oup.com/word-of-the-year/2016/ the speakers approached the question from a range of perspectives, adding depth and variety to the talks as well as to the issue itself, and catering to students’ coming from different departments and backgrounds. From philosophy to history, from literature to sociology, the issue of post-truth was thoroughly examined by highlighting its origins and precursors, its most common forms today, as well as the challenges and possibilities it holds for the future.
Among other things, I learnt that Trump not only studies propaganda techniques from politicians and regimes of the past (and I suspect he is not the only one doing it), but also that the fact that previous American presidents (from Nixon to George W. Bush) started lying blatantly to the public is the root cause that undermined the confidence that people have on the government and institutions, and therefore prepared the ground for conspirational and paranoid theories. I also realised that the disinformation machine now widely used in politics was first created and used by US by tobacco and oil companies to spread doubt about scientific facts, and that the very same techniques were then picked up by anti-vaxers and other entities to spread doubt, and sometimes flat-out lies. I learnt what an ‘echo-chamber’ is in sociology and listened to an insightful presentation of the rise and myth of the American middle class.
I did not always agree with what the speakers were saying, but I have found food for thought in all the talks, and have come away with a number of answers — as well as a probably bigger number of questions — on the issue of post-truth and on how it relates to American myths (such as exceptionalism, the Frontier, or the American dream to name but the most well-known), to American history, and to its past and present political climate. I have also realised that I need to read Melville’s The Confidence-Man as soon as possible, since many of the questions and doubts raised at the seminar were already present in this work.2I don’t think Melville will ever stop amazing me. 🙂
The discussion on the potential of A.I. for the future of post-truth and disinformation3Read for example this first-hand account from a Google AI top executive: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-65452940 gave me the chills, but luckily professor Paolo Simonetti closed the seminar on a very positive note: literature can save us. By analysing literary works by American authors, as well as referencing neuroscience and literary criticism, he showed the attending students how learning to close-read a text, especially a literary one, can provide a powerful antidote against disinformation, and might be one of the new weapons left to search for something that we can consider ‘truth’ in a post-truth era.
In conclusion, I think this was a positive and productive experience which I would recommend to all students of American Studies in Italy. Not only for the quality of the seminar and its organisation, but also for the gorgeous setting of the CSA location.
- 1“Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. https://languages.oup.com/word-of-the-year/2016/
- 2I don’t think Melville will ever stop amazing me. 🙂
- 3Read for example this first-hand account from a Google AI top executive: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-65452940