The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trumpby Published 17 Jul 2018
|The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump.pdf|
|Publisher||Tim Duggan Books|
A stirring and incisive manifesto on America's slide away from truth and reason.
Over the last three decades, Michiko Kakutani has been thinking and writing about the demise of objective truth in popular culture, academia, and contemporary politics. In The Death of Truth, she connects the dots to reveal the slow march of untruth up to our present moment, when Red State and Blue State America have little common ground, proven science is once more up for debate, and all opinions are held to be equally valid. (And, more often than not, rudely declared online.) The wisdom of the crowd has diminished the power of research and expertise, and we are each left clinging to the "facts" that best confirm our biases.
With wit, erudition, and remarkable insight, Kakutani offers a provocative diagnosis of our current condition and presents a path forward for our truth-challenged times.
"The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump" Reviews
Immediately below is my preliminary 4-star review. Having finished now (after a more careful re-read from the start), I find it necessary to cut the rating to 3 for reasons discussed in the second part of the review.
Halfway through but I feel I want to put some things out there right now (and by the way, although I’m early post publication, I’m reading a purchased — pre-ordered — ebook, not the holder of an ARC copy).
I’m not a Trump lover at all (I voted for Hillary), but Chapter 1 is a Trump Derangement Syndrome disaster that leaves me embarrassed; i.e. that my disdain for Trump paints me as one who would associate with that mindless rant. I really, really wish Kakutani would revise the manuscript simply by deleting Chapter 1 and then renumbering the other chapters. Seriously. Chapter 1 is that bad.
Once Kakutani stops with the amateurish political diatribe and goes back to her own wheelhouse, as a serious cultural critic (literary in her case), the work picks up steam and starts to deliver on the premise of the title, The Death of Truth. It’s not an easy read, which is not surprising since Kakutani is not an author but a critic and as such delivers points in a crisp condensed manner rather than in the elaborately drawn out way one might expect of a scholarly writer. But if you can hang with it, there’s a lot to think about.
The topic itself is a powerful and important one (I don’t usually pre-order but did so here) and I’m impressed with the perspective Kakutani brings to it; not just a chronicling of every major liar out there or essays about how subjectivity is now king. Instead, its a well-argued discussion of how this springs from larger societal developments reflected in other ways, particularly developments in the arts.
As another reviewer said, this is a short work that seems readable in one sitting but at the halfway point, I decided that this would be better appreciated by slowing down and, as another reviewer suggested, taking time to think in between chapter readings.
My rating is based on my half read and, of course, is subject to change when I finish. I took away a point because of the sophomoric Trump obsession that cheapens what otherwise looks to be a valuable and insightful dissertation. (This Trump derangement syndrome is real and is making it too easy for his critics to get lazy and think they accomplish something if they just find creative ways to say Trump sucks. Kakutani fell for it in Chapter 1, which is why I wish she’d delete it, and perhaps kill the sub-title.)
OK. I’m finished now. There are terrific insights here about how and why notions of objective truth are badly damaged nowadays. I don’t dispute anything Kakutani says and appreciate how she broadened my thinking on the subject. Unfortunately, though, her insistence of maintaining the tie to Trump (understandable, perhaps, as a potent selling point for the book) limits the work to much less than it could have been.
The Trump obsession (accompanied by nods to other well-known bad guys such as Putin and Hitler) seems to have blinded Kakutani to the “truth” that falsehood flourishes with comparable valor even when supposed good guys are pulling the strings. I live in New York City, where our current Mayor and City Council President (and, it seems, next-mayor-wannabe) bill themselves as “progressives.” Their tweets and media soundbites abound in goodness. But to those mired in the day-to-day reality of life in this city, their connection to truth is every bit as strained as anything that has come out of Trump and those around him.
Yes, lies can seen as valuable tools in the hands of those we assume disseminate evil. But the merchants of good peddle falsehood with equal vigor and effectiveness.
The biggest thing that Kakutani misses, in my opinion, is the role of complexity. Even for the most objective, well-intentioned, diligent and intelligent speaker addressing an audience that really wants to know, truth can be hard to discern, very hard, and often not possible given the current state of our investigatory resources.
Kakutani herself walked right into this trap even in this book, when she made a reference to how banker misconduct in connection with the 2008 financial crisis went unpunished. It got less than a full sentence as I recall. Kakutani just stated it apparently assuming her audience (presumably educated urban and probably left leaning folks who read the NY Times where she spent most of he career) knew this to be a well established fact. There are many who do assume this, But is it? Really? Does Kakutani know what a derivative is? Does she know why mortgages are securitized? Does she know what securitization is? What does she know of the process of appraisal? What does she know of the sort of modeling done by the army of “quants” (not people with political or economic agendas but most likely physics, chemistry, engineering, etc. majors who love the creativity of developing numerical models to describe and forecast the real world) who developed the models that supported what the bankers were doing?
Part of Kakutani’s casual departure from objective truth on this topic (a departure so casual, I doubt she realizes it should even be tested for accuracy) seems attributable to Kakutani herself being influenced by some of the cultural forces she describes. But even beyond that is the complexity of the topic itself. It may be generations before any of us can confidently explain what happened and why, (Even now, there are things about the 1930s depression that can be debated.)
Complexity is not just limited to things like this, Take something that many of us wrestle with every day; diet and nutrition. Are fats good or bad? Are carbs good or bad? Etc. Answers constantly change as we learn new things.
And what we “know” now may later be seen as nonsense. We can go on and on. Are video games bad for kids or do they enhance certain cognitive skills? Is a higher minimum wage good for low income workers (more money) or bad (fewer jobs)? Etc., etc. etc. in every walk of life.
It’s important when discussing a topic like truth to avoid getting so wrapped up in a specific agenda (such as anti-Trump) that we refrain from naively accepting a whole different set of falsehoods, something that is remarkably easy to do considering how difficult it often is to identify truth. Missing this was an important shortcoming in the book.
Very deep reading of the current crisis which has roots that go back pretty far to elements of 20th-century movements like postmodernism and the totalitarian movements from the 1930s. Postmodernism and Nihilism were the tools to pry apart institutions and the idea of the truth and replace it with a nihilistic will to power that is at the center of the far right which holds the reigns of government in the US. The carefully written philosophical piece puts together the trends from the sixties of questioning the truth and objectivity and the raising of a subjective relativism as a tool for the far right that since the nineties has served it well in amassing power and capturing a large enough part of the public to follow it wherever it goes. When there is no truth or facts beyond dispute then the biggest megaphone wins. Perfect for oligarchical nihilists in Russia and the US to sacrifice truth in pursuit of power. It is a return of the climate of the thirties in Germany and Russia where radicals in pursuit of power and total destruction of their perceived enemies seized control and brought about tyrannies in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany that now are returning in new forms in the present moment in Russia, Europe, India, and America. The destruction this nihilism wrought in WWII nearly destroyed the future. This time we might not get off so easy.
The truth is this: If you like literature, this is the best book you’ve read this year. If you don’t like Trump, this will be the best book you’ve read since he descended the gilded escalator. And if you don’t like the tone of modern politics, it is the best book you’ve read in a couple of decades. It’s informative, extremely well written, and there is no personal mud slinging. It’s a book about literature and will tell you more about the politics of today (and literature) than any pundit could begin to.
The underlying point of the book is that the attack on truth began in the 1960s with the emergence of postmodernism. The author, however, does not just assert that truth, as most contemporary politicians would. She documents it; because, to her, the truth is still the truth, and it’s still important. And as Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” (I actually had lunch at a private table for four with him one time but he, sadly, did not use that quote. He did, however, talk about the outrageously high cost and lack of access to health insurance. Circa 1990!)
I am now a retired/involuntary gig economy resident of Michigan, so I understand how Trump got elected. (His opponent was actually denied, but that’s another story. Not as in cheated, but denied nonetheless.) What has amazed me ever since, however, is how stable his support appears to be. Orwell, whose 1984 I reread recently for context, could not have imagined, in his most creative moment, the current disregard for truth and honesty.
There is, nonetheless, a logical explanation, and this book provides it. It won’t make you feel any better, but it will make you feel a little less like you are wandering in the wilderness.
And, as you would expect from such a renowned literary critic, the writing is superb. It definitely made me yearn for those Sunday mornings several decades ago when I would rush out to buy The New York Times, a couple of croissants, and my wife and I would spend the morning in bed reading. (I lived in New York at the time—sans children, obviously.)
As one who truly enjoys the literary in literature and appreciates the value of words, and one who lived in China for a decade and resides in a necessarily bilingual household, my favorite line was, “Precise words, like facts, mean little to Trump, as interpreters, who struggle to translate his grammatical anarchy, can attest.”
A truly spectacular book that should be number one. You will cringe at times, laugh at others, but end up with a much better understanding of why life in America feels so surreal at the moment.
The book reminded me of the fact that during the entire time I was growing up my parents, both veterans of World War II, now deceased, refused to tell any of their children which candidate they voted for. I have no idea to this day if they were Democrats or Republicans. That, in their minds, was personal, a right to privacy they had both fought for.
Later, in the 1960s, I was a teenage boy not looking forward to receiving my draft notice and being shipped off to fight in the jungles of Vietnam. I watched Walter Cronkite religiously to get the latest news. And while it was never good he signed off each night, “And that’s the way it is.” Nobody bothers with that kind of truth any more. And that is a loss we all pay for.
I broke my rule about not reading books with Trump in the title for the ARC of this very solid extended essay by Michiko Kakutani. I particularly liked the way she incorporated her extensive reading in fiction and non-fiction to provide examples and commentary on today's politics and how we got here. Also, good footnotes provide a guide to further reading. My big reservation is that the only people who are likely to read this book are very unlikely to learn anything new. This can be read in one sitting unless it depresses you too much.
As the former chief book critic of The New York Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michiko Kakutani has apparently spent the past three decades noting and commenting on the decline of “objective truth” in American literature and public life – and while she approves of this postmodern paradigm as it relates to art, she has been horrified to watch as disestablishmentarianism has migrated from a necessary Leftist pushback against the military-industrial complex to an alt-right, “drain the swamp” anti-intellectualism which has found its apex in the current alternate facts, fake news, lies tweeting president. Quoting from sources as diverse as Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism, David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, and Donald Trump's own Think Big, Kakutani's The Death of Truth is scholarly, logical, and angry. Here's the thing: For a book that decries polarisation and bipartisanship and the algorithms that ensure we only read news stories online that align with what we already believe, there's nothing neutral about Kakutani's treatise; she is preaching to her choir and dismissing everyone else as “alt-right trolls” and “dittoheads”; nothing here would be persuasive to anyone who believes that mainstream media has a liberal bias, and especially since she spent her career at The New York Times (which isn't to say that I fundamentally disagree with what she writes here). This is a quick read, divided into nine essays, and I've decided to let Kakutani do most of the talking here in excerpts I selected as demonstrative of either her points or her tone. (Two notes: I am a Canadian and have read this book only as an interested bystander. And since I read an ARC, it is probably particularly egregious that I have quoted such big chunks; these passages may not be in their final forms, but they do reflect the book I read.)
The Decline and Fall of Reason:
Trump, who launched his political career by shamelessly promoting birtherism and who has spoken approvingly of the conspiracy theorist and shock jock Alex Jones, presided over an administration that became, in its first year, the very embodiment of anti-Enlightenment principles, repudiating the values of rationalism, tolerance, and empiricism in both its policies and its modus operandi – a reflection of the commander in chief's erratic, impulsive decision-making style based not on knowledge but on instinct, whim, and preconceived (and often delusional) notions of how the world operates.
The New Culture Wars:
Since the 1960s, there has been a snowballing loss of faith in institutions and official narratives. Some of this skepticism has been a necessary corrective – a rational response to the calamities of Vietnam and Iraq, to Watergate and the financial crisis of 2008, and to the cultural biases that had long infected everything from the teaching of history in elementary schools to the injustices of the justice system. But the liberating democratization of information made possible by the internet not only spurred breathtaking innovation and entrepreneurship; it also led to a cascade of misinformation and relativism, as evidenced by today's fake news epidemic.
“Moi” and the Rise of Subjectivity:
Writers as disparate as Louise Erdrich, David Mitchell, Don DeLillo, Julian Barnes, Chuck Palahniuk, Gillian Flynn, and Lauren Groff would play with devices (like multiples points of view, unreliable narrators, and intertwining story lines) pioneered decades ago by Faulkner, Woolf, Ford Madox Ford, and Nabokov to try to capture the new Rashomon-like reality in which subjectivity rules and, in the infamous words of former president Bill Clinton, truth “depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is.”
The Vanishing of Reality:
Renee DiResta, who studies conspiracy theories on the web, argues that Reddit can be a useful testing ground for bad actors – including foreign governments like Russia – to try out memes or fake stories to see how much traction they get. DiResta warned in the spring of 2016 that the algorithms of social networks – which give people news that's popular and trending, rather than accurate or important – are helping to promote conspiracy theories. This sort of fringe content can both affect how people think and seep into public policy debates on matters like vaccines, zoning laws, and water fluoridation.
The Co-opting of Language:
Trump's incoherence (his twisted syntax, his reversals, his insincerity, his bad faith, and his inflammatory bombast) is both a mirror of the chaos he creates and thrives on and an essential instrument in his liar's tool kit. His interviews, off-teleprompter speeches, and tweets are a startling jumble of insults, exclamations, boasts, digressions, non sequiturs, qualifications, exhortations, and innuendos – a bully's efforts to intimidate, gaslight, polarize, and scapegoat.
Filters, Silos, and Tribes:
Because social media sites give us information that tends to confirm our view of the world, people live in increasingly narrow content silos and correspondingly smaller walled gardens of thought. It's a big reason why liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, find it harder and harder to agree on facts and why a shared sense of reality is becoming elusive.
While public trust in the media declined in the new millennium (part of a growing mistrust of institutions and gatekeepers, as well as a concerted effort by the right wing to discredit the mainstream press), more and more people started getting their news through Facebook, Twitter, and other online sources: by 2017, fully two-thirds of Americans said they got at least some of their news through social media. This reliance on family and friends and Facebook and Twitter for news, however, would feed the ravenous monster of fake news.
“The Firehose of Falsehood”:
The sheer volume of dezinformatsiya unleashed by the Russian fire-hose system – much like the more improvised but equally voluminous stream of lies, scandals, and shocks emitted by Trump, his GOP enablers, and media apparatchiks – tends to overwhelm and numb people while simultaneously defining deviancy down and normalizing the unacceptable. Outrage gives way to outrage fatigue, which gives way to the sort of cynicism and weariness that empowers those disseminating lies.
The Schadenfreude of the Trolls:
Trump, of course, is a troll – both by temperament and by habit. His tweets and offhand taunts are the very essence of trolling – the lies, the scorn, the invective, the trash talk, and the rabid non sequiturs of an angry, aggrieved, isolated, and deeply self-absorbed adolescent who lives in a self-constructed bubble and gets the attention he craves from bashing his enemies and trailing clouds of outrage and dismay in his path. Even as president, he continues to troll individuals and institutions, tweeting and retweeting insults, fake news, and treacherous innuendo.
Despite making comparisons between Trump's misinformation techniques and those of Hitler and Lenin, Kakutani ends on a hopeful note; pointing out those citizens who are pushing back against threats of despotism and urging her readers to join in: “It's essential that citizens defy the cynicism and resignation that autocrats and power-hungry politicians depend upon to subvert resistance.” American citizens must also protect the institutions that their founding fathers put in place to uphold democracy: the checks and balances of a tripartite political system, education, and a free and independent press. This is an angry book, and while Kakutani laments the modern echo chamber of thought, I can't see this making much of an impact with those outside her own silo. Four stars is a rounding up.