Review – The Death of Truth by Michiko Kakutani
Amid many recent books purporting to explain our present age’s apparent problems with the truth, Michiko Kakutani’s stands out.
It stands out because of its author’s reputation as a judicious writer; she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for literary criticism. But more than that, it stands out because of the specificity of its central claim – which holds not, as other books have argued, that there is more falsehood in the world now than ever, or it is easier to be duplicitous, and on a grander scale, than at any time in recent history; but rather that the very idea of verity is under attack, and that it has been in retreat for some time.
The boldness of that fundamental claim might mark it down for originality. But that is not in great supply. Early on, the reader begins to suspect exactly what Kakutani will say, and exactly how she will get there. Arendt, Orwell, troll factories, filter bubbles – all make their awaited appearance within pages.
This is no great problem. The book is a political and social polemic, not a cheap thriller. There is no need to be kept guessing until the final page. But the above, combined with a mass of complementary references, weighs down what might be a light essay. The work is more referential than it is declarative, and this gives its arguments a tired, second-hand quality.
The American president comes in for criticism – of a fairly perfunctory sort. For Kakutani, Trump as not just a cartoon villain but an enemy of the truth: he has waged a ‘war on language and [made] efforts to normalize the abnormal’. This is, one ought to grant, a pleasing reformulation of the anti-Trump mantra ‘this isn’t normal’. But as a comment on the present moment, such thoughts are more normal than revelatory.
More references arrive. Kakutani traces the political paranoia diagnosed by Richard Hofstadter, and what Philip Roth saw as berserker impulses in the American psyche – all this running parallel to the what Kakutani sees as a more noble history of the United States.
That narrative – representing the ‘normal’ – is itself idealised. It is not quite and America of mothers and apple pie, but Kakutani renders a vision of a nation revering its constitution, ruled by its laws, a country for which the authors of America, those Kakutani paints as good, enlightened men, placed barriers in the way of poor governance which are now under attack.
Kakutani is correct when she notes the importance of setting narratives, coupled with what she terms the ‘instability of language’ in modern society. Much of this is blamed on trends in postmodernism – with Mike Cernovich, an ardent Trump supporter and propagator of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, revealed as an unlikely but faithful reader of Lacan. This does not hold entirely.
But Kakutani is on solid ground when discussing trends in literature and how these portend narcissism. Gonzo and ‘new’ journalism, which centre even stories of real importance on the person of the reporter, did not help.
Ditto the decadent unstraightforwardness of modern fiction, suggesting a constellation of crack-brained writers and a public eager for unreliable narrators and novelists. This is a literary landscape where ‘subjectivity rules’; the ‘memoir boom’ which followed saw ‘self-indulgent, self-dramatizing’ works find and shape a receptive audience.
The above references are useful and well deployed. But Kakutani is the prisoner of this tactic. Extending one’s frame of reference to draw uncritically on the writing of Seymour Hersh and the documentaries of Adam Curtis – both rather keen on conspiracy theories – does not allow one to claim a monopoly on recognising and speaking the truth.
Parts of the book are disappointingly obvious, with Kakutani propounding a list of grievances so commonly held across international liberalism that the author loses all claim to originality.
On other criteria, Kakutani falls short. There is no definitiveness in a book weighed down by reference and quotation. Occasional fine phrases of the author’s own emerge, but the whole is surprisingly inelegant, given Kakutani’s years of stellar press clippings.
A career at the culture desk has its uses, and Kakutani is good at characterising culture and diagnosing sickness therein. Her ability to subject books to critique remains undiminished. It has bite and value. It is only when they are grafted to the whole that they lose impact. The political ends of such analyses, when they take their regimented place in Kakutani’s argument, are either pointed but creakingly partisan or banal.
How Kakutani’s book will be judged depends on how several pertinent questions will, in time, be answered. Is her diagnosis of the situation correct? Is there a problem as great as she describes? And how, in the future, will such cautions be viewed – as necessary early warning system, or as alarmist rhetoric conveyed in the measured phrases of a New York Times book critic? And one must remember that if these warnings are taken and acted upon and the worst does not occur, a crisis averted looks like no crisis at all.
There is something to be said about the fundamental divergence of modern media from all that has come before, which Kakutani explicates. Other writers’ cute parallels to the advent of the printing press aside, it is not the availability of media that worries, but rather the feeling that one is, at all times, assailed by its speed and oppressed by its scale. Kakutani understands this and makes much of it.
It is also reasonable to separate the way Trump speaks from other American presidents – though not necessarily other politicians. It is difficult to suggest Trump is more calculatedly mendacious than other participants in politics.
He simply runs his mouth without thought; Trump is, it seems, rarely open to persuasion by evidence – only sudden realisation, rather than any process of reasoning, can change his mind. Impulsiveness and stubbornness dictate his thoughts and his speech.
These are not good things. But they are also not Machiavellian hallmarks. Trump’s policy is not a war on truth, as Kakutani claims; he’s characterised instead by his indolent indifference to it. If such a complaint begins to affect society at large, we may have a problem on the scale Kakutani predicts. Otherwise, at least for the immediate term, we can avoid the gravest predictions of our still undecided future.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.