For an obituary, this is a disturbingly slender book. I looked at it askance for days, unopened on my desk: could the truth be dispatched in around 160 pages (plus notes)? If Michiko Kakutani, well-known former book critic for The New York Times, in possession of a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, can kill it off with such apparent ease, with a flick of the pen, why has it been so hard to nail down all these years?
She dedicates the book to “journalists everywhere working to report the news”. But somehow I wasn’t convinced by this lofty dedication. Seeking reassurance, I turned to Google Scholar and searched for “truth and journalism”: there were 525,000 results. On top of the list rested a journal article by the prolific media scholar Silvio Waisbord about fake news called “Truth Is What Happens to News”. Among his observations: “Conventional notions of news and truth that ground standard journalistic practice are harder to achieve and maintain amid the destabilization of the past hierarchical order.”
Later, Waisbord cites Mersault’s famous counsel in Camus’ The Outsider: “everything is true and nothing is true”. Together, these observations didn’t make me feel much better.
A few days later, I sat down to write a blurb for an event on public broadcasting. When I stumbled, hesitated and eventually expunged the word “expert” to describe both the ABC’s news director Gaven Morris and The Australian’s columnist Judith Sloan (a former ABC deputy chair), I silently cursed Michael Gove, the MP and Brexiteer, and realised I could resist no longer. People, as Gove claimed, may have had “enough of experts”. But perhaps they could handle a short dose of the “truth” about truth. I opened the book.
Kakutani’s primary target in The Death of Truth is obvious – his name is Trump, and he is the embodiment of what ails much of the world’s political discourse. Kakutani describes him as a “larger than life, over-the-top avatar of narcissism, mendacity, ignorance, prejudice, boorishness, demagoguery, and tyrannical impulses”. The Troller-in-Chief infects most chapters, is name-checked every few pages and is painted as either a harbinger of a new totalitarianism or the apotheosis of the post-truth era.
Kakutani opens with Hannah Arendt: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction… between true and false… no longer exist.” She ends by citing the US founding fathers: Jefferson, Washington and, most succinctly, Madison: “A popular Government, without acquiring popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both.”
Between the two quotes, and true to her calling as a literary critic, Kakutani enlists a steady stream of polemicists, journalists, commentators, historians and academics. This makes the book both a biography of truth’s demise and an extended and sophisticated meditation on these fraught times. Aside from Arendt, who pops up frequently, she cites Orwell, Wolfe, Roth, Yeats, Pynchon – even Kipling and T.S. Eliot. There are moments when the use of the literary canon feels a bit showy. Okay, you’ve read a lot of books, Michiko; we get it.
Here, she gets to unload on a subject I suspect has been annoying her for years: postmodernism. That is, the idea that everything is relative and open to deconstruction, and so nothing holds solid meaning. These parts of the book – and her excoriation of a culture more interested in feelings than facts – make for the most interesting and rewarding reading. Shooting Trump is, in the hands of a progressive East Coast intellectual, akin to drowning reality TV stars in a vat of lights and make-up; taking down Club Derrida, and skilfully charting how the curse of relativism, the narcissistic attenuations of identity politics and the march of the cultural wars jumping from the left to the right are much bigger achievements. This is what makes The Death of Truth so confronting – because you might well read this and conclude, “It’s my own fault.”
While Kakutani sets up her stall on the White House lawn, exposing the truth-decaying ethos of the Trump era, this is not best understood as a political work. It is a social, cultural and historical travelogue. And the final destination is, well, looking at us in the mirror. Have we been far too prepared to accept that “everything ha[s] an infinitude of meanings” and is corrupted by the author’s point of view, gender, social standing, education, heritage and so on? That, “in short, there [i]s no such thing as truth”? No more agreed-upon facts; it’s all up for grabs – and my facts are as good as yours.
In several well-crafted passages, Kakutani cleverly jumps us back from her attacks on smarty-pants intellectuals and a society obsessed with “moi” and subjectivity (at the expense of society and objectivity) to Trump. Norman Vincent Peale, the author of 1952’s self-help bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking, is cited as an early influence on the forty-fifth president via his father, Fred Trump. Peale writes, “Any fact facing us, however difficult, even seemingly hopeless, is not so important as our attitude toward that fact.”
That was written more than seventy years ago; the death of truth has been a long time coming. In fact, there are few points in time since the end of World War II that aren’t enlisted to Kakutani’s case. In this way, the work is like one of the maps found in the back of in-flight magazines: all the loopy red lines, of differing lengths, reaching the same destination, named Decline o’ Reason. Again, the literary greats are called upon to show us the way. Roth and Wolfe are employed to cajole and extol action and embrace the world beyond the self or, as Wolfe wrote in 1989, to “head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping Baroque country of ours and reclaim it as literary property”. This is one of a few points where Kakutani gets close to directly criticising journalism. The implication: if only reporters had talked to more “hog-stompers”, they might have better picked the election of Trump. In other words, dear reporter, leave the beltway, get off Twitter and go talk to the real people.
But that’s about the extent of Kakutani’s critique of the fourth estate. Fake news, internet trolls, Russian manipulation, technological distractions and social media platforms happen to it and around it. Journalism soldiers on, seeking the truth, toting up Trump’s lies (5.9 a day in the first year), getting beaten up – but comes across as incapable of winning the war, at least alone. Fair enough: it’s a tall mountain to climb. As Waisbord writes, “journalism as a single institution cannot possibly control this environment”.
Yet hard as it may be, Kakutani’s sparkling prose and bright intellect falters on how to resuscitate truth. She is convincing on how we got here, less assured as to how we might get back. Perhaps it is beyond the remit of the book, which is largely spent listing the multiple usurpers of truth. Is journalism practised in good faith a vital part of the resistance? Yes, of course. But is this enough? No. To my mind, journalism needs to spend as much time working out the demand side of the equation – what do readers want, what will they buy and why? – as it does on ensuring the bona fides of supply. This may well be another book. Kakutani’s work is definitely not it. She leaves us with some simple nostrums: “There are no easy remedies, but it’s essential that citizens defy the cynicism and resignation that autocrats and power-hungry politicians depend upon to subvert resistance.”
Perhaps the book that needs to be written should be called Truth: Its Demise and How to Bring It Back to Life. Such a publication would benefit from fewer references to the literary canon and more attention on the leading role that journalists, editors, publishers, digital platforms and their audiences need to play in resurrecting the truth. Hmm, I’d love to read, or even write, it.