Michiko Kakutani’s THE DEATH OF TRUTH: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump (Tim Duggan Books, 2018) is, remarkably, the first book by the long-time and influential book reviewer for the New York Times, now retired. It has extensive notes (citations) and a list of additional sources, but no index.
Questions going in: does she suggest how we recover? And whence his supporters?
Ways to recover? Not many suggestions; it’s not the subject of the book. She mentions, at the close, citizen action, and protecting the branches of government, education, and the free press.
The subject is the analysis of how we got here. It’s a combination of the American tradition of anti-intellectualism, the cultural relativism of the 1960s and postmodernist attitudes on the left (now co-opted by the right), and a cultural narcissism also arising in the 60s. The rise of right-wing media propaganda in Limbaugh, Fox News, Breitbart, and others, feeding off their audiences worst fears. And of course Trump’s shameless, endless lies. And, yes, the internet, which makes all this worse, due to its anonymity and appeal to base emotions. (Incidentally notable are that chapter epigraphs include quotes by Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, and Robert A. Heinlein.)
The two most monstrous regimes in human century came in the 20th century, and both relied on ways of making people susceptible to lies and totalitarian rule. Hanna Arendt’s analysis sounds like conditions today, as we see similar ‘danger flags’ to use Margaret Atwood’s term. Now we have fake news, alternative facts, and now ‘truth decay’ p13.
How did all this happen? It’s not only Trump. There are deeper issues: the news media since the advent of Fox News; the rise of social media; and even, on the left, the rise of relativism in the 1960s.
Ch1, The Decline and Fall of Reason
Lincoln, in 1838, understood that the nation was founded on Enlightenment values. Yet there’s also been an irrational counterpart, a ‘paranoid style’ that reoccurs in waves: the Know-Nothings, Joseph McCarthy, and now the modern right, founded on grievance over changes that seem to be taking America away from them. How that Yeats quote has become so popular again; the sense that things are falling apart, 26t.
Trump followed the fringe right since the 1990s with paranoid fantasies about Clinton and Tea Party alarmists. Large percentages of Republicans believe things that are not true. Trump began his career by playing off false beliefs.
Trump embodies anti-Enlightenment principles, repudiating rationalism, tolerance, and empiricism, 27b, getting his information from partisan sources like Fox News and Breitbart. (Like Chauncey Gardiner.) Books by Jacoby and Gore trace these trends. Trump criticized the Iraq war, but learned nothing from it.
Larger attitudes in American society: Andrew Keen’s 2007 book; Tom Nichols’ 2017 book.
Trump relies on loyalty and reverse-engineering his conclusions for evidence, the very opposite of the scientific method, p37, and reminiscent of Orwell, whose 1984 has no word for ‘science’.
April 2017 saw the March for Science, in DC and around the world. Comment about how attacks on science are like turning off the headlights, and driving blind, p39.
Recalls memoir by Austrian Stefan Zweig of Hitler’s rise, and how no one then took him seriously, until too late. How the Nazis moved slowly, seeing how much they could get away with…
Ch2, The New Cultural Wars
Cultural relativism began in the 1960s, with ideas fashionable on the left, but has been co-opted by the right, ironically adopting attitudes seemingly counter to their firm stances on law and order. Post-modernism rejected the Enlightenment; it suggested that truth depended on perspective and cultural background, and every statement could be different interpreted, p47b. This led to some fine art, but also a steady loss of faith in institutions and official narratives. By the 1990s it seemed earlier cultural wars were over, but this was premature. They came back with hard-core rightists—Tea Party, birthers, evangelicals, white nationalists—in part reacting to Obama and his policies. Trump plays on all their fears. Now the right is indifferent to violations of decency and standards they ironically upheld in the ‘80s and ‘90s. This relativism is not the same as multi-culturalism, p53.
Postmodernist views of science reflected the ambivalence of the cold war: science as hawkish, pro-business, etc. Attitudes reflected in Orwell, who suggested there was no science, but German science, Jewish science, etc.
Postmodernism also emphasized the instability of language, with ‘deconstruction,’ the idea that all texts are complex and variable in meaning and can never be said to represent what the author meant to say, p57t. A scandal involving one supporter, Paul de Man, over anti-Semitic comments, was dismissed as merely being ironic; who could tell? Thus undermining the idea that any statement can mean anything, employed by Trump supporters who dismiss his outrageous claims as not being meant literally.
Ch3, “Moi” and the Rise of Subjectivity
Parallel with the rise of postmodernism was the advent of a culture of narcissism, reacting to the pace of social change, or perhaps as Tom Wolfe claimed, hedonism granted by increasing disposable income. The “Me Decade” and the rise of celebrity news, or subjectivity and the celebration of opinion over fact. Trump exemplifies this trend: three statements about how his feelings trump apparent facts, and Gingrich’s defense of how public feelings trump evidence of reality (about crime statistics).
This myopic tendency among Americans was noted by de Tocqueville, later exploited by Norman Vincent Peale, and Ayn Rand. Serious writers reflected this in literature that became self-conscious; Tom Wolfe wrote fiction in reaction, but not many followed. [[ science fiction, of course, can be seen as the very opposite of self-involved fiction about oneself. ]] Thus the rise of memoirs, and blogs, 69t, the James Frey scandal; no one really cared whether his book was memoir or fabricated.
Personal testimony became fashionable—even in biographies of other people.
This subjectivity has been exploited by those who “want to equate things that cannot be equated” p73.6, thus creationists who want to “teach the controversy.”
Trump did this with his “both sides” comments. Climate deniers, anti-vaxxers, all depend on this ploy, by attempting to manufacture doubt, as did the tobacco lobby in the ‘60s. The media has been irresponsible in promoting such false equivalence.
Some have reacted: stop inviting the cranks onto BBC, said one. Long quote from Christiane Amanpour, p76.
Ch4, The Vanishing of Reality
Epigraph by Philip K. Dick, from “The Electric Ant”.
Trump’s presidency represents a warping of reality, of the surreal, in which reality is stranger than fiction. Politicians have always spun reality, but Trump is worse, lying reflexively and shamelessly, lying to appeal to fears, p80, attacking news he doesn’t like as ‘fake news’. Trump used lies as a business tool; all that mattered was making the sale. Recalls PT Barnum, who relied on the willingness to believe, rather than whether something was a fact.
Borges, Gibson, Lem, PKD, Fellini grappled with similar theme; Borges’ Tlon about a fictional planet imagined by a secret cabal. And Pynchon, with themes of paranoia.
And “The Matrix”, exploited by the far right to imagine selling their own inside-out alternative reality. 86.6 Of conspiracy theories and fake news, on sites like 4chan and Reddit, internet bubbles that don’t just reflect reality, but shape it.
Ch5, The Co-opting of Language
Language is like water; we think and live in it. This is why Trump and other authoritarians coopt language. Again, Orwell, his Newspeak, satirizing the ‘wooden language’ of the Soviet Union, with tautologies, bad metaphors, and Manicheanism. Hitler, like Trump, was obsessed with speaking directly to the people, and subtly redefined certain words, p92, and how the Nazis were obsessed with the best or the most; any event had to be about the biggest elephant ever killed or the coldest water Napoleon fought in.
Trump uses words to mean the opposite of what they really mean, calling news fake, assigning nicknames based on the sins he is guilty of himself – lying, crooked, crazy – and how his administration bolsters these lies—to assert power over truth itself.
Similarly to 1984, Trump changes the past to suit the present; White House websites were revised to remove pages on climate change, etc.
And Trump’s incoherence – “his twisted syntax, his reversals, his insincerity, his bad faith, and his inflammatory bombast” p98.7 – are “a bully’s efforts to intimidate, gaslight, polarize, and scapegoat.” He’s more concerned about how he looks than what he says.
And his Tweets. His assault about ‘fake news’ have been picked up by other countries.
Eco on Mussolini: he did not have any philosophy, only rhetoric. Trumps echoes him.
Ch6, Filters, Silos, and Tribes
Arthur Miller on Bush. Growing divisions between political sides; each demonizes the other; they can’t agree even on the idea of college. People now seek out like-minded communities, special interests. Both sides are ideological; like sports teams.
The chief reason: the explosion of right-wing media, p110. Limbaugh in ‘90s, and his “four corners of deceit” and his charge of scientists as frauds, p111. Then came Fox News, Breitbart News, Sinclair Broadcasting and its Orwellian scripts; they all spin “truth-based content” into narratives that ratify their audiences’ worst beliefs or fears. Shameless, solipsistic, and insulated.
This is tribal politics, all about party loyalty despite evidence, p113. Reasons behind confirmation bias; how group dynamics makes it worse. Conservative Charles Sykes stepped away from his radio show and wrote a book called HOW THE RIGHT LOST ITS MIND; listeners simply rejected how conspiracies they believed in were “demonstrably false.”
There are no more common TV shows that ‘everyone’ watches; news sources and social media filters everything into silos, so it’s harder and harder to agree on facts.
Ch7, Attention Deficit
Gibson quote, from his novel ZERO HISTORY, p119
The world wide web was, in 1989, a noble project; it’s gone sour, due to its anonymity and posts that appeal to base emotions.
Fake news is mostly conservative [[ this is a key point – the conservative worldview is about retaining traditions in the face of the reality about the universe ]] and more pro-Trump than pro-Hillary. Trump’s hate-fueled messages were tailor made for social media; thus mob chants of ‘lock her up’. Targeted posts; Russian accounts; fake accounts, to deflect bad news about Trump.
It will only get worse, with fake video…
Ch8, “The firehouse of Falsehood”: Propaganda and Fake News
Heinlein quote about appealing to prejudices, from “If This Goes On”, p135.
Russia is at the center of much of this, following Lenin’s model of revolution—not to improve the state, but to smash it. One tactic is to simply lie; “ordinary morality does not apply to them.” [[ another key point about some conservatives; they excuse everyday lies because they believe they have a ‘higher cause’ ]]
Steven Bannon, too, wanted to destroy the state, p138.
Both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union offered simply solutions to complex problems, 139m; ends justify means. Hitler in Mein Kampf.
Hannah Arendt on how they gaslighted their populations, wearing people out, to cynicism. Propaganda isn’t about misinformation; it’s about exhausting critical thinking and truth, 143t.
Russian propagandist Vladislav Surkov described how it wasn’t so much about ideology, as about power and wealth. How there is no objective truth, inspired by Derrida, to undermine western ideas of truth and transparency. The goal was to replace the republic by a CEO…as predicted in comic books.
Ch9, The Schadenfreude of the Trolls
Quote from The Dark Knight.
In American, cynicism has been growing into a nihilism, “partly a sense of dislocation in a world reeling from technology change, globalization, and data overload…”
Trump is a symptom. His is a dog-eat-dog world; quote from his book. He defines himself by those he attacks, and relentless negativity. Republicans have followed suit, or lose donors.
There’s also a growing loss of faith in institutions, the respect for the rule of law, civility, 155m; that life is random and devoid of meaning. The Great Gatsby, et al, 156t.
Note again how fake news projects didn’t take with liberals, 156b.
This nihilism is shone in the writer who compared Trump’s campaign to the 9/11 flight: charge the cockpit or you die.
And how Trump and others dismiss their worst comments, as jokes. Daily Stormer: always blame Jews for everything, etc., claimed as self-deprecating humor in one place, true belief in another. 159.
There’s an echo here of deconstruction, also deeply nihilistic, as if the search for truth is futile. A kind of post-modern irony, like the 1980s ad star Joe Isuzu, and Rush Limbaugh.
Recalls Neil Postman, AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH, 1985, considering BRAVE NEW WORLD and 1984, and that Huxley was prescient and Orwell applied to the Soviet Union. As it’s turned out, Orwell applies to us too, in Trump. It will take years to repair his damage, 168.
Washington’s farewell address anticipated this, warning against undisciplined men who would subvert the power of the people, and about foreign influences.
No easy remedies, but among them: the Parkland students who took action. Citizens must protect the institutions of our founders: the three branches of government, and two other foundation stones: education and a free and independent press, 172t. And Jefferson and Madison both made statements that support the need to find agreed-upon facts, without which there is no way to debate, or conduct democracy.