The Death of Truth review - riveting, righteous and relevant
Despair finds a voice as Michiko Kakutani mourns truth in the world Trump has made
Michiko Kakutani. Photograph Astrid Stawiarz/Getty
The Death of Truth
For decades until her retirement last year Michiko Kakutani reviewed the big books of the culture as chief literary critic of The New York Times. In The Death of Truth she brings her close reading of these and other works, as well as recent history, to bear on “a world in which fake news and lies are pumped out in industrial volume by Russian troll factories, emitted in an endless stream from the mouth and Twitter feed of the president of the United States,” nativism and xenophobia are on the march and social media is cleaving us into hermetically-sealed factions.
The result is a riveting exegesis of the collapse in our time of consensual reality but also, perhaps, an artefact of the polarisation it describes.
The lord of the dance is Donald Trump who opened a beachhead for his presidential bid with scurrilous crypto-racist musings on “birtherism” – wondering aloud, purely innocently, of course, about the birthplace of his predecessor in the White House.
Kakutani situates Trump squarely within US tradition. This comes in two strains – exemplary and cautionary: America, the moral prefect and monument to our better selves, but also America, the seat, in Philip Roth’s formulation, of “the indigenous American berserk”.
He’s also the effluvium of America’s shrill, partisan politics. The Republican party has long peddled inverted snobbery and trashed expertise. Soapbox punditry on cable news and the attendant emergence of “infotainment” has further fanned polarisation. And the cynical determinism of Bush administration officials commissioning “forward-leaning” intel to foment war in Iraq anticipates a president, who, as ex-advisor Steve Bannon puts it, reads strictly “to reinforce”.
The operative word of our age is “weaponise”, Kakutani writes. Abetting Trump in distilling garden-variety Republican populism into toxic sloganeering such as “Build That Wall!” has been social media, which selects incendiary content over measured, reflective takes. Then there’s post-modernism, conceived in part to admit neglected voices to the discourse but, in the hands of Trump and his apologists, a toolset for dissembling and prevarication.
The air is thick with overblown comparisons to the 1930s
These forces have allowed demagogues to conjure an alternative, simpler reality resonant to those feeling threatened by immigration, off-shoring of industrial jobs and the prospect, through automation, of further redundancies.
The air is thick with overblown comparisons to the 1930s, and Trump’s demotic populism or the Botox-plumped kleptocrat Russian president, Putin, seem far-removed from the sweat-lathered spittle-flecked harangues of Hitler or jut-jawed preening of Mussolini. But the analogy Kakutani draws is shrewd, invoking Jorge Luis Borges’ fable about a cabal of intellectuals who concoct a fictive planet, Tlön, objects from which begin materialising. Gradually, the populace becomes indoctrinated in “a fictitious past”.
“Borges drew direct parallels between the power of fictions about Tlön to insinuate themselves into human consciousness and the power of deadly political ideologies based on lies to infect entire nations,” Kakutani writes, “both, he suggested, provide internally consistent narratives that appeal to people hungering to make sense of the world.”
The Death of Truth pulses with progressive conviction. But I wonder if this doesn’t lead to a blind spot.
Kakutani closes with rousing calls for “resistance” and rallying around democratic institutions as bulwarks against untruth and tyranny.
But, in America at least, the best, least abstract, most immediate, antidote is to vote the bum out of office at the next opportunity. This entails changing the minds of those liable to vote for him again.
There’s little in the spirit of outreach in The Death of Truth.
Kakutani is correct about the rightward shift of the Republicans. But America’s left has not been unaltered by this; it would be remarkable if it had. Where the right has become addled; the left can be self-absorbed and prone to piety.
The Death of Truth traffics judiciously in the allegorical writings of George Orwell. But, consider a review Orwell wrote in March 1940, near Nazism’s apogee, of Mein Kampf. It’s a squib, but Orwell was known, in the words of Edmund Wilson, to “load solid matter into notices of ephemeral happenings”. His bleak observation about the appeal of strongmen – and the corresponding urgency of reaching those who might be susceptible – remains germane:
“[Hitler] has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all ‘progressive’ thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues . . . Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However, they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life.”