One of my best friends since the age of 9 and I just started a book club. The rules of the book club are that we would each alternate the choice in book and write a review. The first book was his choice and he chose “The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump” by Michiko Kakutani. I preface this by saying that I try not to engage with people when it comes to political discussions. The assurance with which they express their beliefs is often proven wrong by history and the passion they bring into it, seems a complete waste of energy to me. The same could be said of this whole review. I understand that politics for some is a worthy and even natural pursuit, for me, it is not. I feel it is dark even when expressing high ideals.
In this book, Michiko Kakutani, who had a very distinguished career as a book reviewer for the New York Times, lays out the case that though it didn’t start with Trump, truth is under attack and that Trump represents a perverse culmination and tombstone for the death of truth. The book is dedicated to “Journalists everywhere seeking the truth.”
She believes there is “dark, irrational counter theme” to America today typified by her listing of policy pronouncements from various republican administrations and the “irrationality” of those who vote for that party. Hitler is invoked, directly, with the aim of comparing how people didn’t take him seriously as if to allude to our need to take Trump more seriously. The 24 hour examination on TV, protests, and art depicted him has evil incarnate proves the exact opposite.
She proceeds to lay out the origins of the divide by describing the radical change in the Republican party. Both parties have changed dramatically and will continue to do so. Ms. Kakutani selects and charts the change of various beliefs as proof of irrationality coming to the fore. Here she then invokes Post-Modernism which as a left leaning philosophy has “ironically” been taken by people who support Trump. I must admit that I don’t have enough background in the theories of Post-Modernism to have much to say here but the examples used that these arguments pave the way for anti-vaxxers and global warming deniers, seems tenuous at best. There have always been and always will be people who hold opinions that contradict the “consensus” opinion all the more so in a nation like ours that invites independent thought, even if it doesn’t follow the majority opinion of experts. For that matter, “experts” or “elites” have also always been the object of suspicion by ordinary Americans. While this can come at the expense of overall progress in certain areas, it is also arguably, what allows Americans to be the originator of ideas that challenge the past and still shock the world with innovative technologies and paradigm changing ideas.
She proceeds to talk about how narcissism has come to the fore. She quotes Alexis de Tocqueville’s worry about Americans withdrawing into “small private societies united together by similitude of conditions, habits, and customs to indulge themselves in the enjoyments of private life.” He worried this would “compress, enervate, extinguish, and stupefy people.” Seems to be a valid point of concern but DeTocqueville also said “In the United States, as soon as several inhabitants have taken an opinion or an idea they wish to promote in society, they seek each other out and unite together once they have made contact. From that moment, they are no longer isolated but have become a power seen from afar whose activities serve as an example and whose words are heeded” He saw it as a strength here, this I know. We would need a scholar of De Tocqueville to settle this. She then says that Norman Vincent Peale whose church Trump attended as a child contributes to this by his belief that just changing the power of your thoughts can change the facts. I am an admirer of Norman Vincent Peale and have read most of his popular books and she completely misunderstands his writing. He is not saying that just by thinking something you change the circumstances what he is saying is that by shifting your thoughts from negative to positive, your ability to respond to the same circumstances changes and therefore you can change the outcome of your life. She goes onto to describe how literature has become more and more about the personal and doesn’t engage in broad philosophical speculation as it did in the past. I found this part engaging. From the biographies she describes to the blogging of today and v-logs, it does seem that people are more and more focused on their own world with less outer engagement. I love the Phillip Roth quote she uses where he says its a “kind of embarrassment to one owns meager imagination.” There is no doubt with the rise of the internet a decrease and marginalization of the power of imagination in favor of explicit, accentuated visuals.
She believes this belief of postmodernism that truths are “partial and a function of one’s perspective” have been used by creationists, anti-vaxxers, climate deniers, and Trump. I have spoken to “anti-vaxxers” at many natural healing events. While I disagree obviously with people who think all vaccinations are bad, on the whole they come to the table with more nuanced information than you might think. They are not a monomorphous group of people either and ascribing them to a group seems spurious. This immediate relegation to a monomorphous group with a label is worrying. It allows the one doing the categorization to be comfortable and form final and fixed conclusions on the people in that group, then they don’t have to deal with them anymore. It’s dangerous. All of these people have various shades of belief that have real implications for dialogue. Relegating them to a group makes it easy not to deal with them. Could the repercussions of odd views becoming more mainstream be dangerous? Yes but that is the danger in any free thinking society that praises independent thought. Let’s at least acknowledge that this sort of thing goes on even in mainstream science. Scientists often defend old and outdated scientific beliefs long after they have been proven otherwise. Max Planck the famous physicist said “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” or as it is frequently paraphrased, science advances one funeral at a time. There is sadly no holy objectivity in science, it’s arguably as rife with as much subjectivity and politics as every endeavor in man. It’s the best we have and we need it desperately, but those who retreat into like it is holy writ are pathetically ignorant of how flawed it is.
Another theme discussed is that modern technology and the internet are isolating us into bubbles of our own ideologies magnifying the lies. While this definitely seems true and in an ideal world we would all be reading and interacting with people who have other opinions, I think it’s unrealistic and naive. Humans have a natural tendency to self segregate and are almost completely immune to changing their opinions. Have you had your mind changed by your facebook friends posts? What a colossal waste of time.
To be sure, there is great value in interacting with people of differing opinions and outlooks. It makes life more interesting and seems to create a tension that helps us grow. If you avoid it because “they” are evil, you unfortunately have fallen prey to the toxic habit of group politics which automatically removes reason and humanity from the other person or worse, group. It’s a sickness that is all too common. It took a polarizing figure like Trump to make these divisions already strong even stronger. Group identity politics has been growing for a long time now and what we are witnessing is latent and suppressed beliefs coming to the fore. I do not believe that these divisions are new, they are just more out in the open. As someone who has read maybe a dozen books on the Civil War and certainly no expert, when you look it, one can say that war never ended and has been simmering all along. What people don’t understand is the ideological differences are much deeper than race and extend to the fundamental structure of our society, our government, and our culture.
Probably the most interesting part of the book to me is the explanation of how the internet was used by the campaigns and especially by Russia. It was much more detailed and devious than I had previously thought. Though, I am sure it has been detailed elsewhere, this was my first introduction to how extensive it was.
She attempts to describe how Trump uses the classic tools of propaganda honed by dictators and authoritarians. It does appear to me that Trump and his team do seem to use these techniques and bizarrely even outright calls out the word “truth” in ways that are meme-worthy. This and the fact that he pays lip service to less than savory people, does raise questions about the morality of the techniques that he uses. I’m not sure however if this turn towards this sort of propaganda is partly connected to the way modern media is or is a direct result of a calculated questionable choice.
The book ends with a description of the nihilism of our age, it does seem concerning but every generation seems to say the same thing about the generation after it. Are we sliding into dangerous territory, maybe, but history cycles. There are hopeful signs everywhere, from decreases in poverty and violence worldwide to signs that show so called generation Z being more responsible and morally minded. It’s a dark book and it seems Ms. Kakutani needs to end that way. Trump is no statesman (we’ve had very few), has overt ego inflation (I’d say a prerequisite to be president), courts unsavory individuals for short term political gain (not a presidential historian but probably not new), and apparently uses immoral propaganda techniques but the inference that this is the end of our “democracy,” the rise of a new Hitler, or even the “The Death of Truth” seems overblown. I hope my friend doesn’t choose another political book 🙂