What you need to know
Postmodernism writ large is poisoning civic life, and a solution remains elusive.
The devaluation of truth as a threat to liberal democracy is not a new phenomenon. Political theorist Hannah Arendt writing in the 1970s already could see that “the ideal subject of totalitarianism is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false no longer exist.”
Michiko Kakutani begins her book, “The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump,” with Arendt’s observation, and goes on to say "[w]hat's alarming to the contemporary reader is that Arendt's words increasingly sound less like a dispatch from another century than a chilling mirror of the political and cultural landscape we habit today.” Kakutani holds this chilling mirror before contemporary society again and again in her first book since stepping down as chief book critic for The New York Times.
Kakutani writes in response not only to the presidency of Donald Trump – whose complete disregard for fact is well-documented – but also to a general feeling in the United States and around the world that democratic institutions are being eroded. This feeling has many authors looking to draw lessons from past observers of dictatorship. Kakutani’s choice of sources – including the aforementioned Hannah Arendt, whose “The Origins of Totalitarianism” makes several appearances – places her book in this resurgent tradition of intellectual history.
Thusly, her work moves swiftly through a who's who of heavyweight political commentators. George Orwell shows us how the powers that be co-opt and twist language so that it's no longer fit to describe reality. Stefan Zweig, writing after two world wars devastated Europe, tells of a public that willingly blinded itself to the inconvenient truth of Hitler's rise. Alexis de Tocqueville in the the early nineteenth century noticed how Americans myopically focus on their own pursuits imperils the public sphere.
Kakutani’s analysis is even more compelling when it confronts how truth is uniquely besieged in the 21st century. Information siloing via the internet enables each individual to cultivate their own set of facts and have them parroted back. Increasingly sophisticated Russian trolls and comment bots spread misinformation across the web, aiming to destabilize the normal functioning of government. The American president is himself a troll and an inveterate liar whose preferred mediums are Twitter and TV.
Technology enables these new assaults on truth, a worrying trend that Kakutani does not see slowing down anytime soon: "Advances in virtual reality and machine-learning systems will soon result in fabricated images and videos so convincing that may be difficult to distinguish from the real thing. Voices can already be re-created from audio samples, and facial expressions can be manipulated by AI programs. In the future, we could be exposed to realistic videos of politicians saying things they never said..." Her prediction is terrifying, and causes one to wonder whether our political institutions are capable of managing the technological advances of the very near future.
The most novel and nimble chapter in Kakutani’s book is the “The New Culture Wars” where she makes a connection between postmodernism and the far-right. Simply put, postmodernism is an intellectual movement that questions the possibility of objective truth by emphasizing the historical and social contingency of our most strongly-held beliefs. It began as an academic and artistic movement, and when it is associated with political movements it is usually associated with the far-left in the U.S.
Though, as Kakutani points out, "the migration of postmodern ideas from academia to the political mainstream is a reminder of how the culture wars – as the vociferous debates over race, religion, gender, and school curricula were called during the 1980s and 1990s – have mutated in unexpected ways." The right-wing used to be the guardians of tradition against the charge of postmodernism; however, today's far-right have adopted a denuded version of postmodernism. They use its truth-skeptical attitude to justify the logically inconsistent claims of the American president; or to deny the empirical fact of climate change; or to excuse a lack of any consistent moral system. What began as a intellectual movement associated with the left has been adopted as a rhetorical tool by the right.
Sometimes this is done unwittingly – Kakutani quips that it's highly unlikely that Donald Trump has read Derrida, Baudrillard, or Lyotard, three foundational postmodern theorists – yet other times it is done with cynical intention, for instance, in the case of Vladislav Surkov, the Russian political operative and propagandist who leverages postmodern ideas to reinforce Putin’s regime. If truth is a lie, then the Kremlin's facts (or the facts of any regime) are just as valid as anyone else's. Postmodernism, Kakutani argues, can be emancipatory and enlivening when it come to art but it's poisonous when it becomes the predominant intellectual strain of civic life. Kakutani's weaving of sources is at its most engaging in these sections, perhaps owing to her storied tenure as a literary critic.
And indeed, Kakutani weaves together a ton of sources from literature, journalism, art, and politics. There are over 300 footnotes which adds up to 38 pages of references (out of 208 total in the hardcover release). Yet Kakutani's erudition is what makes the work. The way she arranges sources that many readers will be familiar with in new ways is fun to engage with. Even if one feels at times like they have intellectual whiplash moving from Roth and Wolfe to Derrida and de Man and back again, the pacing only occasionally detracts from the urgency of the message.
Whither a solution?
What's missing, though, is a solution. Kakutani sees a glimmer of hope in the student activists who are advocating for gun control measures in the wake of the Parkland, Florida school shooting, yet they have been unsuccessful in overcoming America's too-powerful gun lobby.
And the book ends, somewhat unsatisfyingly, by appealing to the wisdom of the American founding fathers who warned us that "Without truth, democracy is hobbled." Hobbled it may be, but what can be done? Perhaps Kakutani’s more convincing answer is in the book's dedication, which is "For journalists everywhere working to report the news.” Though what Kakutani spends the majority of her work outlining is an epistemological crisis. Addressing this crisis will take not only active and principled journalism, but also new ideas to replace the cynical, truth-skeptical discourse which holds sway.
“The Death of Truth” says something vital about the time we live in – a time in which the possibility of truth is under threat in a way that is no longer confined to academics, art, and literature, but has become the daily rhetoric of political life. Kakutani’s uncertainty about what to do next is, perhaps, all our confusion. Although her analysis remains mostly within the American context, she traces a threat that we all need to confront, since it is a threat not only to liberalism but to the possibility of a politics that is concerned with improving the material wellbeing of people rather than simply holding on to power. Her work warns of a phenomenon that is both global and here now, and which may be the defining problem of our era.