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
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.
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.
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.
“The Death of Truth” is a short book that reads like a long essay. The author, Michiko Kakutani, is a well known literary critic and former chief book review editor of the New York Times. She is (or should be) a legend to anyone interested in reading good books and being highly and critically discerning about the books that one reads. It is not necessary to agree with all that she writes, although that may well happen. It is difficult to be a discerning reader and not pay attention to what she thinks about a book.
The book is concerned with the assaults that have come to characterize the Trump Administration, ranging from the theatre surrounding the Press Secretaries that have worked for the President, to the Twitter Feed of the President, to the various public falsehoods that regularly issue in Washington DC and are catalogued by the press, to the emotional and more often than not baseless and hyperbolic attacks that issue from the President towards those with whom he disagrees. We all know about this and Kakutani is highly critical of the evolving norms that seem to focus on making claims and other statements that do not seem intended to be subjected to standards of truth or falsity - what Harry Frankfurt analyzes in his book, “On Bullshit”.
Kakutani’s book is interesting not for new points that she raises. Indeed, if one follows the mainstream press and is concerned about these issues, he or she will feel right at home. The perspective she adopts is also clear - Kakutani is deeply critical of the attack on truth and sees it as a threat to American democracy. She provides a rich context for these developments, showing that they have been around in American literary life for quite some time. She goes into some detail on deconstruction as practiced by Derrida, Foucault, and others, and how the parlor games of left intellectuals have been adopted, intensified, and put to practical use (weaponized) conservative extremists. I had noticed this too before reading this book, but am reassured by her analysis.
An interesting focus on part of the book is on the rebirth in interest in dystopian fiction, especially of a political variant, since the 2016 election. For example, Orwell has seldom sold more copies, especially 1984 and Animal Farm. She also brings up the renewed interest and relevance of Huxley’s Brave New World, which is a very different view of how civilization ends in tyranny than that of Orwell. By juxtaposing Orwell and Huxley, Kakutani hints at ways in which the current assault on truth and reason may differ from prior attacks. I hope she develops these ideas further.
Simply put, this is essential reading if you want to understand, at least in part, the political chaos caused by technology, and perpetuated by those who harness its power for authoritarian purposes.