Probably the first lie you told was to the person closest to you in the world, your mother. You may have been four years old and the smell of baking chocolate chip cookies was mesmerizing. She had told you could have one after they had cooled on the kitchen counter, then one more after dinner. You couldn’t wait. When she had gone outdoors to water the garden, you took not one, but three out of the pan. You wolfed them down quickly, before she came back in.
She caught you rushing out of the kitchen and confronted you. Did you eat the cookies? You said no. But the circumstantial evidence was overwhelming. She said your father would deal with you when he got home—not for eating the cookies, but for lying. The next three hours were an eternity of agony. You learned that lying was punishable by something worse than death.
Years later in college you were taught that plagiarism is one of the greatest crimes and could quickly end your academic career. You learned how to attribute everything that isn’t common knowledge or your own opinion to its original source.
Then, in newspaper work everything you write is fact checked down to the most seemingly innocuous detail. A call in the night could be from a sallow editor asking if Councilman X actually said, 63 cents out of every dollar in tax revenue went to policing?
And then all those lessons in truth telling seemed to vanish down a rathole.
At this writing the largest wildfire in California history is uncontained, vaporizing hundred-year-old redwoods in a horrific path of destruction, snuffing out small villages once populated by logging families whose way of life is finished.
Shockingly, if shock is even still possible, in the midst of this calamity, President Donald Trump announced that the fires could be stopped if the state of California was not recklessly diverting massive amounts of needed water into the Pacific Ocean and preventing the forests from being cleared by logging companies.
There was no truth to the presidential pronouncements. Water isn’t being diverted into the ocean and fires like the one near Redding are not fought primarily with water but with firebreaks and fuel clearance. As for the pro-logging statement, the fact is that the over logging of old growth trees leaves only saplings and brush that act as kindling for conflagrations.
The problem is that truth in Trumpland has become scarcer than fire-free months in California.
In her new book The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump recently-retired, longtime New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani draws on years of wide reading to trace the path that led to our current truth-free condition.
Trump may be the apotheosis of the anti-truth movement, but Kakutani finds the roots of the problem goes far back into our national psyche. Philip Roth, fifty years ago, referred to “the indigenous American berserk” and historian Richard Hofstader, in 1964, wrote in “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” of the “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” that has long run in parallel to the ideals of “truth, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
In what now seems to be a grand paradox, in that same year, John Rousselot, an official in the John Birch Society, and also a congressman from a district near Los Angeles, wrote of the United Nations: “We know that it is an instrument of the Soviet Communist conspiracy.” Square this with Trump’s sycophantic embrace of the ex-KGB operative and current Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.
This curious Russo-philia also extends to what has become one of Trump’s pet descriptors for the hated media. “Enemies of the people” is a phrase coined by Lenin and then favored by Stalin to brand anyone who he didn’t consider sufficiently loyal. Millions of people so labeled were driven to gulags or savagely executed in Larentiy Beria’s prisons. A favored form of execution was a slow crushing of the skull in a vice.
His words have had the intended effect. An Ipsos poll just released at the time this is written indicates that a plurality of Republicans—43 percent—believe that Trump should have the authority to close down CNN, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. That’s what it said: close down.
Kakutani’s examines how “a disregard for facts, the displacement of reason by emotion, and the corrosion of language are diminishing the very value of truth, and what that means for America and the world.”
There has always been a strain in the American character that was observable in the mid-19th Century by Alexis de Tocqueville, the French writer who greatly admired American democracy but also observed a lack of civic debate and a tendency to believe charlatans and snake oil salesmen over scientific fact—a strain that Mark Twain relished in depicting.
But Kakutani places the origins of our current epidemic of truth-denying in the 1960s where a relativism germinated in the culture wars and was embraced by the New Left, which was “eager to expose the biases of Western, bourgeois, male-dominated thinking.” Concurrently, academics promoted the “gospel of post-modernism, which argued that there are no universal truths, only smaller personal truths.” If it was the left which set the country on this course, at present, Kakutani says, “relativist arguments have been hijacked by the populist right.”
And the manipulation of truth has infected the highest levels of governance.
In a New York Times Magazine article in 2004, writer Ron Suskind recalls a conversation with staff member of the George W. Bush administration who said, “We are an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. You, on the other hand are in what we call the reality-based community…. All of you will be left to study what we do.”
Trailing not too far behind the nascent relativism of the late 1960s was deconstructionism, a pernicious wave of literary criticism I saw first leaking into and then flooding English literature circles in the 1970s and beyond. Jacques Derrida in France (and for a time at the University of California at Irvine) was the leader of this quasi philosophy, whose chief U.S. proponents were J. Hillis Miller and Paul de Man.
First applied to literature, but later to spread to the study of history, architecture, and the social sciences, deconstructionism in Kakutani’s words “posited that all texts are unstable and irreducibly complex and that ever variable meanings are imputed by readers and observers.”
It promoted an extreme relativism that was ultimately nihilistic. Anything could mean anything. The author’s text was immaterial, as was the author’s intent. For the deconstructionists there could never be a commonsense reading of a text because all texts were open to infinite readings. And because it was only the reader who counted, the biography of the author was also irrelevant. This was convenient for one of the stars of deconstructionism.
Paul de Man, who left Belgium after World War II and eventually was to teach at Yale, was apparently a charismatic professor with a cult-like following in academic circles. In his self-reported biography, he talked of serving as a member of the Belgian Resistance. In reality, as well-documented in books by David Lehman and Evelyn Barish, de Man was a con artist, and, as Kakutani writes, “an opportunist, bigamist, and toxic narcissist who’d been convicted in Belgium of fraud, forgery, and falsifying records.” As for his valor in the resistance, that was pure bunk. In fact, a Belgium researcher found out, four years after de Man’s death, that during the war he was a Nazi collaborator who had written for pro-Nazi publications espousing virulent anti-Semitism. In one of his pieces he wrote of the Jews as a “demoralizing influence in the realm of thought, literature, and the arts.”
So convoluted is the reasoning of deconstructionists that de Man defenders said that his anti-Semitic obscenities weren’t what they appeared to be at all, but rather that they meant just the opposite of what they actually said. They were meant ironically!
While deconstructionism is less popular since the debunking of one of its saints, the language—which could easily fit into George Orwell’s seminal essay “Politics and the English Language,” which sets the gold standard in decrying the degradation of discourse—continues to affect our speech. Terms like “indeterminacy of texts,” “alternative ways of knowing,” and the “linguistic instability” of language could easily fit into the ways Donald Trump’s subordinates attempt to rationalize his distortions and misrepresentations.
Kakutani spends time on deconstructionism because it has permeated our way of looking at objectively reality. It maintains that all of the efforts of journalists and historians to “ascertain the best available truths through the careful gathering and weighing of evidence—are futile.” There is no truth there is only infinitude of “truths.”
This book is a product in part but not wholly a reaction to the age of Trump. Trump is the immediate problem, but he is also the symptom of a long-brewing malignancy within the culture: the dumbing down of social discourse that was decried in Neil Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death
We have entered the world of around the clock infotainment. This is concomitant with a term used by the Rand Corporation in a recent report: “truth decay.” The report describes the “diminishing role of facts and analysis” in America public life, citing the persistence of climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers as evidence. The nation’s leader has embraced both positions.
The president persistently stands by his claim that his inauguration drew the biggest-ever crowd to the National Mall. And though this was shown to be counter-factual, he stands behind the claim of his spokesperson Kellyanne Conway that his version is a perfectly acceptable “alternative” fact.
As a writer and for years as a journalist the lodestar for my professional work and in my personal transactions has been the ideal of truth, the belief that a careful ascertainment of facts could lead in the direction of the ideal of truth—admittedly never quite encompassing it. And for much of my life there were some generally agreed to facts that might possibly lead to truth. Two plus two would always equal four.
In the last session with O’Brien in 1984 Winston refuses let go of that truth. His torturer holds up four fingers and demands “How many fingers am I holding up, Winston.”
“Four,” Winston insists.
“And if the Party says that it is not four but five—then how many?”
“No,” O’Brien insists. “Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”
Kakutani’s book is a plea for the immutability of truth. For the insistence that four can only be four and nothing else.
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