Two words many people thought could never be strung together to make a coherent sentence were alternative and facts. As an adjective, alternative relates to a choice between two or more possibilities. As a noun it refers to a situation that allows a mutually exclusive choice between two or more possibilities. A fact can be described as something which is real; something concrete used as a basis for further interpretation or an objective consensus on a fundamental reality that has been agreed upon by a substantial number of experts. The former speaks of possibilities or chances, whilst the latter refers to verifiable and accurate measures.
Yet the phrase became the popular buzzword for the Trump administration. Coined by United States Counselor to the President, Kellyanne Conway the phrase alternative facts stood boldly in the face of [actual?] facts and jeered preposterously. Alternative facts provided a bolster to, and then subsequently strengthened, the rise and popularity of conspiracy theories. These conspiracies that would shape the Trump administration and eventually taint North American conversation with its low whispers, discreet accusations, undiplomatic allegations, and downright falsehoods.
Conspiracies, and conspiracy theories, have always been part of world thinking and the fact that some of them have proven to be true lends credibility to all others.
There were conspiracy theories about Watergate long before it was proven to be true in 1974 forcing then President Nixon to resign.
There were rumors that tobacco companies knew about the ill effects of smoking even since the 1950s but buried the evidence. It was only in the 1990s that tobacco production company, Philip Morris admitted the truth.
As the world approached the possibility of all out nuclear war because of the Cuban Missile Crisis it was discovered that the United States military were planning false flag operations. They planned to “Develop a Communist Cuba terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida cities and even in Washington … We could sink a boatload of Cubans heading to Florida (real or simulated) … Exploding a few plastic bombs in carefully chosen spots, the arrest of Cuban agents and the release of prepared documents substantiating Cuban involvement also would be helpful in projecting the idea of an irresponsible government.” The plan was never brought to fruition, but the fact that it was being considered alone is frightening enough.
Closer to home here in Canada, there was a conspiracy theory in the 20th century that Canada had created something called “Gaydar” to better detect homosexuality. Shockingly, it was proven that Canada had indeed created a machine that was used to “detect homosexuality” in federal employees. It “worked” by measuring the participant’s pupil dilation to same-sex-erotic imagery. Canada used the so called “fruit machine,” to fire or exclude over 400 men from civil service, the Mounties, and the military.
It is on the foundation of examples such as these that modern conspiracy theories find their power. The argument being that some the examples above were dispelled by government and the authorities as being unfounded with no basis in truth, only to be proved factual. This in turn gave rise to alternative facts; since the “facts” presented by those who claimed to be the knowledge experts in some scandals were only used to deflect blame or hide the truth, then reasonably there must be a set of “alternative facts” that were closer to the truth. In other words, governments, and people in positions of power, did this to themselves and alternative facts was just a way for the underdog to reclaim their own power.
This argument is not without its merit, but how does one explain when it is the government itself speaking about alternative facts? Is that the genesis of fascism? Although many Americans have used the word ‘fascism’ to describe mandates to stay at home or wear masks a closer look at what fascism really means tells a different story. According to World101, fascism is “a mass political movement that emphasizes extreme nationalism, militarism, and the supremacy of both the nation and the single powerful leader over the individual citizen” [emphasis are mine]. Fascism does not begin with enforced mandates – those are just symptoms that appear after fascists get into power.
George Santayana, in 1905, said “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” However, is it only about remembering the past or is something more required? In 1948 Sir Winston Churchill paraphrased the quote to “those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.”
He wanted to differentiate between simply “remembering” and actually “learning” from the past. However, events in the past few years have proven that it was Georg Hegel who hit the nail on the head when he said, “we learn from history that we do not learn from history.” What we are seeing is history clouding our collective judgement; making us believe in ghosts where none exist and causing us to see splendour in human monstrosity. Proving that remembering and learning history is not enough. We must also know our history. We must understand its context. We must be able to interpret the subtle changes and nuances in our own time and make the connection with the past. The past does not repeat, and we must be wary of only looking for reappearing markers.
With this is mind, we must ask - is alternative facts a new phenomenon? You would need to know your history to answer that question.