Lies of Our Times

Berlin on Trump. Tempelhof, August 2018.

In The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump, former New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani provides a passionate and compelling statement of the mainstream liberal critique of the misdeeds of the 45th president and the cultural and political effects that it has spawned. Digging deeper, Kakutani locates the source of the problem in the loss of standards of truth held in common.

Kakutani writes of silos in which people are cocooned, insulating them from the views of those with whom they disagree, but also of a concomitant collapse in standards of truth itself. If there is much with which one could agree in her account, she nonetheless engages in the common liberal tactic of apportioning blame to both sides, in a way that suggests that it is this balance in and of itself that requires to be put right.

Much of what Kakutani presents is a restatement (albeit very concisely and eloquently stated) of liberal complaints against Mr. Trump and his abettors. The torrent of lies emitting from the White House has been accompanied by a superstructure of justifications that amount to the insistence that black is white and vice versa or that commonly accepted standards of conduct and decorum simply do not apply. Kukatani does an excellent job of framing these issues. To her credit, she avoids the tactic commonly employed by major media outlets of creating a simple equivalence between left and right of the kind frequently parodied by Paul Krugman under the heading, “opinions on the shape of the earth vary”.

Kakutani notes a number of sources for the current circumstances at a broader level than simply the misdeeds of the person inhabiting the oval office. As one might expect, Russia occupies pride of place, its officially sanctioned troll factories playing an important role in manipulating public opinion. Importantly, it was not merely a matter of agitating for the election of Mr. Trump, although that was certainly one prominent goal of the Russian program, but also of increasing the political, racial, and social fissures in American society.

At points, Kakutani recognises that political polarisation is not, in and of itself, a novel feature of the American polity. Although the author does not get into the particulars, it is worth noting, for instance, that the most prominent feeling amongst the founding fathers was one of mutual loathing. Jefferson and Madison thought that Hamilton was a was a closet royalist and that Washington was his dupe. Hamilton thought that Jefferson (and most of the members of the Republican faction were Jacobin anarchists. The abhorrence expressed toward John Adams by members of his own Federalist party was only slightly less intense than that expressed by his Republican opponents.

In the modern era, the Cold War saw the increasing usage of accusations of treason and disloyalty as political tools. Kakutani points out, not without justice, that even in that era there was a greater propensity for people of differing political views to interact. Today, by contrast, political groupings have, to a great extent, become self-selecting and self-reinforcing communities with little or no contact with the political opponents.

Enclosed in ideological echo chambers and awash in a sea of info-chaff produced by Russian trolls, Americans (and citizens of democracies generally) are further sundered from each other by the decline of truth as an objective standard. And here we see Kakutani’s right liberalism shine through, as she notes that one of the causal factors in the degraded condition of truth is the spread of poststructuralism, and particularly the work of Jacques Derrida. This is a hobby horse that centrist liberals (especially those of a scholarly bent) love to ride. Derrida asserted that texts are open and can be read in a wide range of mutually inconsistent ways and, lo, this nullity imagines itself to have attained a level of civilization never before achieved.

Kakutani does note that critiques of dominant metanarratives of society did have some positive effects in terms of the growth of a more broadminded multiculturalism in the academy and in society more generally. But this is merely a matter of allowing liberalism to self-correct and to offer the benefits of freedom and dignity that were parts of it formal structure of premises to begin with. This moment is then snowed under by the standard liberal claims that poststructuralists destroyed every good thing in modern intellectual culture.

Even without going into a systematic examination of whether the views being attributed to Derrida were ones that he actually held, there are a number of issues to contend with here. Certainly, Derrida was taken by many to espouse a position of extreme relativism. I can still remember an argument that I had with someone in college (who was under the spell of Lacan rather than Derrida but the point is the same) who “rebutted” every argument with the statement, “The ‘I’ is a lie.” But the idea that either Derrida or his adherents are responsible for the jaundiced view of truth abroad in American culture today is a kind of mirage that affects that psyches of the educated.

In fact, the number of people who ever read Derrida (let alone understood him) is vanishingly small by comparison that of those populating the public sphere. The view that poststructuralism exerted a pernicious effect on modern political culture is ever paired with the tacit implication that this was a matter of some sort of irresponsibility on the part of the figures in question. When scientists arrive at results that people find unpalatable they ought to publish them as is. When cultural critics (whose work is more a matter of inclination than serious scholarship) take positions that raise problems, well, perhaps they ought to suck it up and remain silent.

Kakutani’s critique of poststructuralism is leavened with a rehearsing of the personal fallibility of poststructuralists, Derrida in particular. The latter, most ill-advisedly, came to the defence of Paul de Man who had been outed as having collaborated with the Nazis in wartime Belgium (in addition to being an intellectual charlatan). Clearly, Derrida was wrong to have done this, and the arguments that he and other evinced to defend de Man were fatuous in the extreme. But this has rather more to do with institutional and intellectual politics and a failing inscribed in the structure of poststructuralist thought.

One might also note that Martin Heidegger, Derrida’s spiritual mentor, and a really execrable human being, is also frequently the subject of criticism for having defamed objective truth. The same thing applies in his case in terms of the paucity of people who have actually read and/or understood his work. It is probably also the case that Heidegger, who started his career as a mathematician, actually rolls in his grave every time someone conflates his views on the world (which depends on us) with his views on the universe (which doesn’t).

Liberals, who all too often forget that their own intellectual history has not, at every point, upheld the highest standards of personal and intellectual conduct, might also profitably look further back at the history of philosophy to find the sources of the grief to which objective truth has come. Take, for instance, the case of Kant, much beloved in liberal circles, whose dualist epistemology sent several generations of European philosophers chasing the noumena down rat holes.

Further on Kakutani continues her subtle balancing of the misdeed of left and right. She references Anne Applebaum, the conservative-liberal journalist, and historian of the crimes of communism, in support of the view that today’s anti-truth trolls have, in a significant sense, taken up the mantle of the Bolsheviks. Applebaum has built up her stock in trade in arguing that Stalin was far worse than Hitler. Kakutani dredges up Applebaum’s article of a year or two ago in which she termed habitually truth-averse conservatives neo-Bolsheviks. Her insistence on overlooking the much more obvious reference point for rightwing mendacity (i.e. fascism) illustrates her fanatic and fetishised anticommunism, a position that seems jarringly anachronistic in a world in which the recurrence of communism or anything like it seems extremely remote, and in which the recurrence of actually existing fascism is a very real possibility.

To say that Lenin (and Stalin) differ in fundamentally important ways from Hitler is not to say they were any less bad. Conflating the two compresses history for no good reason, and more often than not is done with political intent. Why Kakutani seems determined to employ the term neo-Bolshevism for modern figures, mostly of a pronounced rightwing persuasion, instead of referencing the guy who wrote explicitly about the “big lie” is perplexing, and detracts from what is, in most other respects, a forceful and persuasive paean to the importance of truth-telling and the tragedy of its eclipse on modern public culture.

The Death of Truth has an important point to make, and people worried about the degree to which politics in the modern public sphere has been reduced to spectacle and groundless assertion will find much to agree with. Perhaps Kakutani’s attempts to rope the radical left into the circuits of responsibility for the current crisis is the reflex of a bright and critical individual who spent a career in mainstream media journalism. Even read as sympathetically as possible, Kakutani’s book does not provide much in terms of therapeutic approaches. If speaking truth to pettifogging worked it seems like it would have worked already.

The problem with this book, and with many of its ilk, is that it neglects the degree to which the current climate of organised falsehood is a systematic production of capital threatened by the degradation of circuits of production and declining rates of profit. There is a sense in which the instability of truth is analogous to the instability of value in finance capitalism. In both cases, layers of assertion and counter-assertion flow across the surface of a truth unknown, merely guessed at, and secondary to the needs of the moment. Kakutani provides one of the most effective critiques to date of the ebb and flow of fallacious spectacle. But she remains as distant as ever from its core.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. Published under a Creative Commons license.