Tag Archives: fascism

The Death of Truth rings true

real enemy tweet

Michiko Kakutani’s book, The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump, is the second-best Trump book I’ve read, second to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power, more trenchant than Jonathan Weisman’s (((Semitism))): Being Jewish in the Age of Trump, and infinitely less completely wrong than Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy (review essay). Those are the only ones I’ve read (open to suggestions).

Kakutani is a great writer, and this little book of 11 chapters in 170 small pages flies by. Since she left the New York Times, where she was book critic for many years, her Twitter feed has been a chronology of political crisis and social decay under Trump; reading it all together induces anxiety at the pace and scale of the descent, but also, surprisingly, some optimism that the situation remains decipherable with the tools of intellectual incision that Kakutani wields so well. With lots of good reviews out there, I’ll just briefly point out some things I appreciated.

Kakutani does the disturbing relevant history without histrionics. So there’s Hannah Arendt and Margaret Atwood, Adolf Hitler and Richard Hofstadter, George Orwell and Aldus Huxley, but not with facile linkages and great leaps. Also, she delves into postmodernism and its influences, but doesn’t simplistically blame postmodernism for creating the “post-truth” world (which rightfully concerns Andrew Perrin); rather she acknowledges the cynical uses to which its language may be put, including among some of its proponents, without the casual lumping of Foucault, Baudrillard, Derrida, and “multiculturalism” or “relativism,” etc., that you see so often. (One thing you know about Kakutani is that she reads a lot.) Although leftist anti-science attitudes play a role in her story (along with anti-institutionalism generally, anti-vaxxers, and so on), she has no interest in the false equivalency that, for example, blames all kinds of identity politics for injecting subjectivism into politics (the way Goldberg does so absurdly), or puts campus no-platforming on the same plane as the Iraq war.

This is an early first pass at a history of the moment, and Kakutani’s wide reading of relevant history connects tightly with the today’s news from Putin’s Russia to Wikileaks, fake news and Cambridge Analytica, to the “culture wars” debates, the “me generation” and today’s information silos, to political polarization, and the siege of journalism. You may as well read it in one sitting.

One good example: In my essay on Goldberg (now updated) I noted that he falsely described Lee Atwater’s maxim, “perception is reality” as “a cliché of the left.” I was glad to see Kakutani bring that up, in the proper context, because it is a moment that still matters. The contrast between their descriptions is telling, so I’ll lay it down here.

Goldberg writes:

“It is a cliché of the left to say that, ‘perception is reality.’ Well, the perceived reality for millions of white, Christian Americans is that their institutional shelters, personal and national, are being razed one by one. They do not like the alternatives they are being offered. Some fraction may indeed be racists, homophobes, or Islamaphobes, but most simply don’t like what they are being offered because they do not know it or because they do know it but prefer what they perceive to be theirs. And yet people like Sanders insist that resistance to their program is not just wrong but evil. The grave danger, already materializing, is that whites and Christians respond to this bigotry and create their own tribal identity politics.”

Goldberg falsely attributes the “perception is reality” approach to the left, then blames the left for making whites into racists. (With anti-Trumpists like these progressives don’t need enemies.) An accurate reading of that history in its proper context links today’s “perceived reality” to Atwater and the GOP itself, to decades of racist propaganda which the GOP generated and then gleefully weaponized. Here’s Kakutani:

“When the Republican strategist Lee Atwater observed in the 1980s that ‘perception is reality,’ he was bluntly articulating an insight about human psychology that Homer well knew when he immortalized Odysseus as a wily trickster, adept at deception and disguise. But Atwater’s cold-blooded use of that precept in using wedge issues to advance the GOP’s southern strategy – and to create the infamous Willie Horton ad in the 1988 presidential campaign – injected mainstream American politics with an alarming strain of win-at-all-costs Machiavellianism using mass media as a delivery system.” (p. 79)

My historical quibble is in the brief handling of China, where Kakutani includes Mao along with Hitler in the Orwell section on the co-optation of language. The Hitler material is excellent, and ties in well with Putin and then Trump’s big lies. But Mao’s “plan of linguistic engineering” does not fit that pattern. China was mostly illiterate, there was no mass media, and the state that was so forcefully imposing fixed terms and meanings, with simple slogans, was also expanding basic education to hundreds of millions of people, and literally reformed the language to make it more accessible, a change that still pays dividends. No need to spare China the criticism, but the early socialist years doesn’t belong in the category as advanced capitalist countries using the tools of fascism against their own democracies.

How bad is it? If Brave New World was warning us about capitalism, and 1984 was warning us about Soviet communism, as Kakutani has it, then it’s ironic that we’re now speeding toward a 1984 scenario even as the capitalist Russian kleptocracy literally parades around the White House (details on Putin’s upcoming visit to be determined). So, it’s bad. (Her conclusion, that only journalism and education can save us, is mercifully brief.) Every week is a crazy unprecedented crisis. Kakutani’s ability to get it down to an organized, linear narrative, with carefully chosen, relevant facts, makes The Death of Truth bracing and clarifying, and well worth a read.

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How I choose sides like it’s 1934

The best way to be sure that 2017 is not 1934 is to act as though it were. —Adam Gopnik

nyt-8-20-1934

New York Times, August 20, 1934.

Jeremy Freese observed back in November:

These are both true. Racism, xenophobia, misogyny, suppression of dissent, these are not new. But Trump and Trumpism also represent a turn toward all that plus an assault on constitutional democracy. It’s the resurgence of the bad side of America plus a new authoritarianism that makes it harder to resist the normal bad. I don’t need to detail this here, but I’ll quote a little more from Gopnik:

Assaults on free speech; the imprisoning of critics and dissidents; attempts, on the Russian model, likely to begin soon, to intimidate critics of the regime with fake charges and conjured-up allegations; the intimidation and intolerance of even mild dissidence (that “Apologize!” tweet directed at members of the “Hamilton” cast who dared to politely petition Mike Pence); not to mention mass deportations or attempts at discrimination by religion—all things that the Trump and his cohorts have openly contemplated or even promised—are not part of the normal oscillations of power and policy. They are unprecedented and, history tells us, likely to be almost impossible to reverse.

So, what does that mean? I think it means we take Gopnik’s advice and act like this is 1934. And John Lewis is right. If that turns out to be wrong — a false-positive read on the catastrophicness of the situation — that’s a better mistake to make than the false-negative mistake of not taking it seriously enough until it’s too late.

It means we need new strategic principles. For me, that means drawing a new line through the political landscape: for versus against Trumpism.

Which side are you on

If you are against Trump, you are on my side. Not on my side in every way or every issue, but where it counts most right now. If you’re against abortion rights, against welfare, against environmental protection, I disagree with you on all those things, and I’ll say that when we get a chance to talk. But to the extent that you march against Trump, vote against Trump’s agenda, speak out against Trumpism, or give money to organizations that do those things, you’re on my side.

I want to focus on opposing repression of dissent, corruption (and Putin), police or military abuse, and assaults on democratic norms, especially with regard to freedoms and protection for racial and ethnic minorities and immigrants. If you accidentally say something racist or sexist while you’re speaking out against Trump, we can discuss it on the side. If you support policies I hate on other issues, but you are willing to vote against Trump’s nominees or his agenda, or candidates who back him, I will speak up for you. We will argue about the rest later. And if you’re only weakly against Trump, thank you. I encourage you to stick with it and try to bring someone else along with you.

On the other hand. If you’re poor and your community is being left behind by global capitalism, with rising mortality and drug addiction, disappearing jobs and crumbling infrastructure, but you support Trump and his movement — you are not on my side. I would love to support policies to help people in your situation, and work with members of those communities that oppose Trumpism. But if you’re marching or voting for Trump, or supporting candidates or organizations that do, or fighting against immigrants or democratic institutions, I’m against you. We can work on your problems later.

It’s really bad that it’s come to this, because it means less progress, and real regression, on important issues and policies. But it’s where we are, and the sooner we get out of here, alive, the better. I could be wrong, and I’m willing to hear why I am. I don’t think you can convince me that this is really business as usual, but I’d love to be wrong on that.

But I don’t want anti-Trumpism to be just another partisan talking point. I’m not calling him a “fascist” just because I don’t like him, or even because I really don’t like him, or because he’s going to sign a repeal of Obamacare. Sure, some Democratic Party partisans are just taking advantage of the panic over Trump to wrangle leverage over the usual issues. Glenn Greenwald is right that some are too credulous about the intelligence dirt on Trump, too trusting of the CIA. But this false equivalency from him shows that he doesn’t take Trumpism as an out-of-bounds threat:

…all of this [Democrats embracing the CIA stuff] illustrates that while the Trump presidency poses grave dangers, so, too, do those who are increasingly unhinged in their flailing, slapdash, and destructive attempts to undermine it.

That’s like saying, “Trump’s Muslim registry poses grave dangers, but so, too, do liberals who think wearing a safety pin makes them awesome anti-racist allies.” That’s out of whack. There has never been a political or electoral majority in America without racists; we’re going to need to be on the same side with a lot of racists to beat Trump and Trumpism. (In the end, though, winning against this might give us a good push in the right direction.)

I know we will see a lot from Republican-controlled government that looks normal-bad, things I would be complaining about if Jeb Bush had won, too. But Gopnik is right to sound the alarm at the collapse of resistance to Trump among “respectable” Republicans. The political alliance between regular Republicans and Trumpist authoritarianism makes for a more powerful rush away from normal awful American politics and toward something that’s hard or impossible to come back from. These are not “the normal oscillations of power and policy.”

In normal times, it can be good strategy to pick fights within the more progressive party in a two-party system, because the majority coalition is all blandness and weak principles, and there’s a lot of room for debate within that. But now, like it’s 1934, we need as big a majority as we can get. That’s what it means to refuse to normalize Trump.

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