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The Death of Truth rings true

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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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