Whatever else is true about Libya right now, it offers a perfect display of discourse in a post-truth world. At one point in time if you routed your enemy in battle and liberated 99% of the country from his control, then it was safe to say you “won” the war regardless of whether your enemy continued to persist in some miserable bunker for another year or even a decade. This was true as recently as the Iraq war when Saddam grew a long beard and hid in a cave for several months evading capture. “Mission accomplished” fiasco notwithstanding, no one pretended like Saddam was somehow still in power simply because he hadn’t been captured. And yet, it seems to be the case in Libya that as long as Saif Al-Islam Gadhafi’s cell phone doesn’t get cut off, he can call up some imbecile reporter who slavishly posts that Saif is “drinking tea and fighting,” which thus “proves” that the rebels still haven’t overthrown Moammar and his sons.
Isn’t that an amazing image? Drinking tea and fighting? I thought shooting a machine gun usually involved two hands. Does he put the tea in a thermos backpack like the kind that marathon runners use? It’s such a farcical image: drinking tea and fighting. His PR consultants must have told him that he needs to convey simultaneously a sense of strength and relaxed confidence. Maybe he’s using a pistol so he can hold his tea cup while he’s doing it. But wouldn’t he spill at least a little bit if he was really getting into it, dodging bullets, etc? He must have his tea in a Nalgene bottle of some sort.
There’s kind of a parallel between Gadhafi “staying in power” and Sarah Palin’s permanent potential candidacy for president. As long as the media thinks it’s entertaining to keep Gadhafi in power and Palin in the presidential race, they create a “fact” by reporting it as such. Sarah and Saif both live in a post-truth world where facts are not dependent on empirical actuality but are instead created by speech events that are memed, retweeted, viralized, etc. This un-real “reality” is the product of living in a global society connected by the Internet, in which the Internet seems more “real” to us than the flesh and blood world that we physically inhabit.
I can’t fly over to Tripoli tomorrow in a helicopter and study the streets to see how many actually belong to the rebels and how many are still flying the Gadhafi flag. The Internet is my only reality that interfaces with the reality on the ground in Libya. So when Saif claims that the rebels are all “foreign insurgents” who have been “weakened” by the regime loyalist forces, the only way I can dispute this is by finding another equally anonymous Internet voice that offers a conflicting perspective. It’s easy to let your view become the “average” of the accounts you hear from each side since you have no empirical basis for independently confirming “facts.” Thus Saif gets to redefine “reality” in a post-truth world as long as he has a cell-phone, just like politicians get to redefine “reality” whenever they find a meme that sticks regardless of whether it has any basis in the flesh and blood world that we used to call reality.
The degree to which Saif’s account is the “true” account of what’s happening on the ground in Tripoli depends upon which story about the world that I need for Libya to fit into. Do the rebels need to lose the war in Libya so that the war can be a foreign policy failure for Obama? Do the rebels need to win the war in Libya so they can be part of the triumphant story of how the US brought democracy to the Middle East? Do the rebels need to lose the war because they might include “Islamic extremists” in their ranks? Or do they need to win the war because Gadhafi supports terrorism and hates the US? Thus the “truth” that I choose to believe about post(?)-Gadhafi Libya depends upon which larger story I want to believe, just as the “truth” that I choose to believe about “death panels,” tax cuts, or climate change has nothing to do with concrete physical data but only with the story that I want to believe. Such is life in a post-truth world where there are no longer facts, but only opinions. I prefer to believe in truth.