True Lies

A Farewell to Truth BY Gianni-Vattimo. Columbia University Press. . $23.

The cover of A Farewell to Truth

AT THE MOMENT, many Europeans and Americans are still busy asking astonished questions about these new political developments (How could it happen here?, and so on). But I am hoping that this phase of shock and disbelief will be shorter for you than it was for us in Turkey. You need to understand what you are facing, so that you can find your way toward a real political and philosophical conversation. Hating, mocking, underestimating, dismissing Donald Trump—or even attacking him—will not get you anywhere. Trust us: We know.

For instance, many in the US media still seem to think that they can fight Trump by revealing some unacceptable truth about him that will finally convince people he is unfit to be president. In Turkey, journalists reported for years on President Erdoğan's personal investments and how he manipulates the economy to his own advantage. Such stories not only failed to weaken his position, they did the opposite. These facts, through being repeated so often, began to seem ordinary. Even when his conversations with family members about illegal financial transactions were leaked, the expected shame and disgrace were nowhere to be found. Erdoğan has achieved this state of impunity through a simple but very effective rhetorical trick, one that would sound quite familiar to Trump and his team. No matter what happens or what information emerges, his refrain is some version of "The political establishment wants to prevent me from doing what the real people of this country want." By repeating this, Erdoğan neutralizes disagreement. Any dissent only seems to strengthen his claim that some nefarious elite is trying to thwart him. Suddenly, up is down and wrong is right.

In an attempt to understand the moment we are in, I recently read Gianni Vattimo's
A Farewell to Truth (2011). I began it the same day that Oxford Dictionaries announced post-truth as the Word of the Year 2016, and a few weeks before Time chose Trump as "Person of the Year." Vattimo is an emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Turin and a two-time member of the European Parliament, so he is well-placed to understand the philosophical depth of our current political problem. He describes an increasingly widespread relativism, in which no shared values or ideas can be taken for granted, and notes an accompanying decline in the status of experts and intellectuals. The intellectual, he writes, is now "operating much like anyone else . . . whose relation to political and social reality is mediated by the mechanism of the (free and neutral?) market." But Vattimo makes the case that this frightening new order (or lack of one) could actually represent an opportunity to reach a more radical form of democracy, in which a real, hard-won political consensus would be built rather than assumed. After the events of last year, it should be clear that none of us can afford to be complacent about our own claim on objectivity, or to suppose that what we consider to be true is so self-evident as to require no serious defense. We must be prepared to think deeply and argue fiercely about how our society should be run. Vattimo, by encouraging us to let go of our illusions, offers a place to start.

Ece Temelkuran's books include Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy (Zed Books, 2016) and the novels Women Who Blow on Knots (Parthian Books, 2017) and Time of Mute Swans (Arcade Publishing, 2017).