The Enlightenment belief that we can know and understand reality — that we can measure it, weigh it, judge it, use reason to explain it — underlies all of the achievements of Western civilization, from the scientific revolution to the Industrial Revolution to democracy itself. Ever since René Descartes asked himself how it was possible to know that melting wax is the same thing as a candle, we have believed that reason, not mythology, sensibility, emotion or instinct, provides a superior way to understand the world. But is that still true?
If the strange case of Sweden and its immigrants is anything to go by, then the answer is probably no. This odd story began last month, when President Trump began ranting, memorably, about dangerous immigrants at a rally in Florida: “You look at what’s happening last night, in Sweden! Sweden! Who would believe this, Sweden!” The following morning, puzzled Swedes woke up to find the world’s media asking them what, actually, had happened last night. The answer — other than some road closures — was nothing.
In an Enlightenment world, that would have been the end of the story. In our post-Enlightenment world, things got more complicated. Trump explained that what he had seen “last night” was not a terrorist attack — though that was certainly implied in his speech — but a filmmaker named Ami Horowitz who was interviewed by Tucker Carlson on Fox News. The interview was indeed terrifying: For those unfamiliar with the techniques of emotional manipulation — and they are the same, whether used by Fox News or Russia Today — it should be mandatory viewing. As the two were speaking, a clip of an aggressive, brown-skinned man hitting a policeman, presumably in Sweden, alternated in the background, over and over, with a clip of a burning car. The repetitive, frightening images were bolstered by more clips from Horowitz’s film, in which Swedish police officers appeared to be confirming a massive rise in crime linked to immigration. Carlson, meanwhile, marveled at the stupidity and naivete of the Swedish nation helpless to confront this menace. No wonder the president was upset.
But the next day, the Swedish police officers protested: Horowitz had never asked them about immigration, and had cut their interviews to make it seem as if they were answering different questions. Moreover, while Sweden did — generously and admirably — accept 160,000 refugees in 2015, and while there are genuine problems absorbing and acculturating them, Swedish crime rates remain low, particularly if you compare them with crime rates in, say, Florida.
A faked film had inspired the president to cite an imaginary crisis — but the story didn’t end there.
A few days later, searching for a way to justify the president’s language, another Fox News journalist, Bill O’Reilly, interviewed a “Swedish defense and national security advisor” called Nils Bildt, who again repeated the allegation that naive Swedes are overwhelmed by foreign crime. But Nils “Bildt” turned out to be Nils Tolling — he may have taken the name Bildt to sound like a relative of the Swedish former prime minister Carl Bildt — and he too was not quite what he seemed. Tolling does not live in Sweden, is not an “advisor” to anyone and is reportedly himself a criminal immigrant , having been convicted of a violent offense in the state of Virginia.
A faked film had inspired the president to cite an imaginary crisis, the existence of which was confirmed by a fake expert — and the story didn’t end there either.
A few days later, a Danish news team visited a Swedish immigrant neighborhood to investigate the alleged crisis — the same neighborhood where an American journalist claimed he had been escorted out by police, a report which the police once again deny. The Danes met a group of young immigrants who said they had just been approached by yet another news team — that one from Russia — who asked if they would riot on camera, for money. Like Carlson and O’Reilly, the Russian team was apparently keen to make reality fit the president’s description of reality, even if it cost them a few Swedish krone.
And so: A faked film inspired the president to cite an imaginary crisis, the existence of which was confirmed by a fake expert — and which now inspired another television team to try to create a real crisis using real people (in a neighborhood crawling with both real and fake journalists) to make it all seem true.
All of this leaves viewers, and voters, in a difficult place. Sooner or later there will be actual violence in response to an imaginary crisis. Sooner or later, a Swedish suburb or an American city will erupt because someone needs it to erupt to justify a demagogue’s speech. But will it be “real” violence or fake? Sooner or later, we won’t know the difference at all.