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27.07.2018

Does a lifetime of reading and writing about books prepare you for your society’s descent into depravity? Society can do that sometimes. No mitigation (“Lots of things aren’t depraved”), contradiction (“Things used to be depraved in the past too!”) or equivocation (“Is it really as depraved as you’re saying it is, though?”) can change that. If you turned on the TV earlier this week in India, you may have heard a popular news anchor ask, on prime-time, whether a lynched and murdered man “invited violence” by hurting popular sentiment. That is pretty far gone, depravity-wise.

Michiko Kakutani, legendary book critic of the New York Times, has been thinking and writing about the the meltdown of public life in the United States ever since the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump. Having retired from her Times post last year, she re-surfaces this fortnight with The Death Of Truth, a short book of essays examines how American culture enabled the rise of this unlikely president, and how the Trump regime consolidates power by contradicting reality - that is to say, by lying.

Kakutani argues that the groundwork for this state of affairs was laid by three things: Russian interference, greedy mass media, and high culture. Postmodernism, the literary theory that proposes that all language is unstable and all truth relative, destroyed intellectual faith in objectivity and reason, she writes. Once we learned that every individual experiences the world in a unique way, it took just a slight perversion to conclude that there’s no need to care about the things that are common to all or most of us. Result: dictators who thrive on fear and alienation.

Kakutani is not a technologist: unlike academics like Zeynep Tufekci (please read Twitter and Tear Gas if you haven’t already), her expertise isn’t in how Big Tech re-shapes human psychology, or in looking for solutions to our large-scale social hallucinations. Nor is she a theoretician; Marxist critics regularly tear postmodernism to shreds (very entertainingly) as a hobby. So The Death Of Truth is really the erudite repetition of a question - why are we drowning in lies? - whose answers have already moved beyond the whole Russia-and-TV-journalism blame game, the American equivalent of the ‘Is WhatsApp making us lynch people?’ debate here.

Her route through this landscape is a dazzling one, taking us past Hannah Arendt, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and every blue-chip New York literary-political phenomenon from Philip Roth to Karl Ove Knausgaard. Her arguments are learned, reaching deep into American and European history. If there’s anything The Death Of Truth leaves us in no doubt about, it’s in Kakutani’s literary sensibility: she is a gentle, generous, strongly ethical reader. She writes to protect language, because language is human; to preserve its humanity it must be able to mean something to more than one person at a time.

This is, of course, true not only for the US, but everywhere that people are concerned about the erosion of democratic norms, and how we relate to each other in our public life. But Kakutani doesn’t seem to be pushing back against this so much as lamenting the fact that it came to pass at all. That’s fair; the fact that the world is overrun by fake news and trolls controlling the narrative deserves the wailing and gnashing of teeth. We can’t, however, put postmodernism back in the giant French brain it erupted from, any more than we can erase the fact that we now have machines that only tell us things we want to hear.

So perhaps the concern really worthy of Michiko Kakutani’s own giant brain isn’t “how are the facts distorted?” so much as: how are the facts received? The death of truth is, after all, an ongoing phenomenon. A hundred years ago most Indians couldn’t read and most Americans got their news from trashy papers advertising cough syrups with cocaine in them. We have always been susceptible to propaganda, and may be more so than ever in future.

What has collapsed, arguably, is moral principle. It’s one thing to disbelieve a videotape on which a man says he likes to grab girls by the pussy; it’s quite another to believe it and still give him your vote. It’s one thing to believe that a truck driver passing your town is illegally transporting beef, but another to beat him to death on that pretext. Without the collective imagination that stitches democracies together, the facts aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. That isn’t just on Russian trolls or WhatsApp rumour-mongers, but on readers and thinkers and fact-checkers too.

Getting there: The Death Of Truth is available here.

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