the truth will set you free…
Is it true? Whatever “it” is, can we be certain “it” represents truth? How do we know? When we act in the world, when we make choices and, perhaps most important, when we establish relationships between ourselves and others, are we sure that “truth” we use as a basis of that relationship is trustworthy? “There’s a sucker born every minute.” While American showperson P.T. Barnum might not have made such a statement as is often assumed, he certainly could have. In her book, The Death of Truth, Michiko Kakutani describes Mr. Barnum and his orientation to manipulation this way:
…a self-proclaimed ‘prince of humbugs’ whose ‘great discovery was not how easy it was to deceive the public but rather how much the public enjoyed being deceived’ as long as it was being entertained.’ And as verisimilitude replaced truth as a measurement, ‘the socially rewarded art’ became that of making things seem true’; no wonder that the new masters of the universe in the early 1960s were the Mad Men of Madison Avenue. (p.83)
How do we ever know if we are proceeding through EveryDayLife based on genuine truth or when we, like puppets, are being controlled by the serendipity of others? Where is the anchor point from which we leverage our understanding of the world?
Earlier this year, through a talk by Robert Reich, we explored the idea of “truth as a common good”. Last week, in a consideration of our relation to language, we posed the question “Where is Truth”. This week, we recommend the Michiko Kakutani book The Death of Truth as a valuable insight into the shifting sociopolitical and cultural sands into which the presence of “truth” in our public discourse has begun to disappear.
Ms. Kakutani’s book attempts to answer the question “How did truth and reason become such endangered species, and what does their impending demise portend for our public discourse and the future of our politics and governance? (p.15)”. Presented in a clearly written, rich literary style, the book addresses recent historical developments, culture wars, contempt for expertise, and, among other things, the myopia of recently ensconced tribalism as reasons why our common sense of what is “real” has begun to slip through our fingers.
Language Upside Down
“Political chaos is connected with the decay of language…”
~ George Orwell
As noted above, last week this blog touched on language relative to truth. The Death of Truth devotes an entire chapter to language. In the “Co-opting of Language” chapter, Ms. Kakutani begins with the John Le Carré’s quote “Without clear language, there is no standard of truth”. From this basic premise, she then focuses on the profound presence of language in human life, as expressed through the James Carroll’s staunch admonition “We swim in language. We think in language. We live in language.” Moving on to descriptions of Maoist and Nazi propaganda techniques, Ms. Kakutani, returns to the present and the various word and concept reversals floated by the current White House administration in which word meanings are often switched to their opposites, traditional avenues of information access (i.e., news media) are deemed “fake news” and even the mechanics of criminal investigation and law enforcement are brought into question. All such attempts to muddy the waters of information validation represent maneuvers to “assert power over truth itself” (p.96).
What is the outcome of such behavior? As reflected in both of his works Animal Farm and Politics and the English Language, George Orwell proposed that degraded and unclear language bears both a symptomatic and causal relation to decline in political thought and interaction. In this regard, too often, particularly in recent years, words have taken on a spin that twists common meanings for those words in directions advantageous to control by those who wield those verbal reigns. The more politically powerful and culturally influential the speaker or medium, the more powerful (and dangerous) are such linguistic spins. Ms. Kakutani cites specific instances of truth modification, beginning immediately after the Presidential inauguration of 2017, such as changes to the White House website climate change page to reflect the views of the current administration, replacement of renewal energy references formerly found on the Department of Energy’s website with statements advocating the use of fossil fuels and censure of all USDA employees’ social media postings “to remove references to policy priorities and initiative of the previous Administration (p.98). Against a backdrop of charges of “fake news”, “witch hunt” (Russian investigation), “alternate facts” and other questionable pronouncements, Ms. Kakutani quotes the current White House occupant’s words to the Republican National Convention, “I’m with you—the American People. I am your voice.” Do modifications of official government information sources and attempts to undermine our primary means of acquiring publically available facts seem appropriate behavior for an advocate of the People?
Objectivity and Intent
In the chapter on the rise of subjectivism, the author distinguishes between the more positive contributions of postmodernism and the abuse of “perspectives” by those seeking specific political, not necessarily inclusive, ends.
The postmodern argument that all truths are partial (and a function of one’s perspective) led to the related argument that there are many legitimate ways to understand or represent an event. This both encouraged a more egalitarian discourse and made it possible for the voices of the preciously disenfranchised to be heard. But it’s also been exploited by those who want to make the case for offensive or debunked theories, or who want to equate things that cannot be equated. (p.73)
For many of us, even if we do not seek to distort the validity of different perspectives, we tend to collapse facets of our “understandings” and belief into isolated social issues. We tend to combine (1) our beliefs about ontology (the nature of reality) and (2) the values we individually and tribally deem important as if these two facets of everyday experience are identical. Too often, we allow our values to assume ontic status, thus assuming our narrow perspectives should apply to everyone else. Our views on many common social issues have become dominated by personally or locally valuable notions which are not necessarily universally applicable. (This blog has addressed the idea of universal “morals” in previous posts and will address these universal versus locally valid perspectives in future posts).
An Author’s Perspective
The Death of Truth is written from what one could deem a “liberal” perspective, although not fanatically so. At times, Ms. Kakutani’s more left orientation tints her descriptions, sometimes resulting in raw lambasting of more conservative positions. Despite this tendency, stripped of the author’s commentary, most of the book appropriately focuses on the manner in which commonality of understanding of the country and ourselves has been both thwarted and endangered by self-serving tactics of some of us who care nothing for the wellbeing of the United States and its people. Additionally, regarding the “tone” of the book, if you are looking for prescription—suggests for what we should do—such is not the stated nor implicit intent of this particular publication. From the beginning, the book’s self-definition is as a description of “how we got here” and analysis to a degree, but not prescription. Such is an apparent choice, not a flaw.
Fear and Loathing in America
We’re all islands shouting lies to each other
across seas of misunderstanding
Throughout the history of the United States, we the general public have frequently made allowance for administrative, perhaps moral and even legal misconduct in the White House and Congress. Some of us consider the recent behavior of individuals in the executive and legislative branches of government justified by similar behavior exhibited in past U.S. governance. Whether or not such allowances are justified, Ms. Kakutani suggests that the difference now is that the very nature of discourse itself has begun to shift away from a common sense of truth and, indeed from reality. The public mind set of much of the United States has begun to shift in a direction that falls outside the boundaries of the overt “American dream” even if such a dream has, in fact, always been an illusion. A major consequence of the shattering of this dream, a demise described in detail in Requiem for the American Dream by Noam Chomsky, is the smothering sense of dread that has settled onto the American sociopolitical landscape.We have all seen many people appear to “change” since the fall of 2016. Regardless of ideology, many have settled into a frozen state of fear, sometime manifesting as entrenched conservatism and sometimes as highly aggressive militancy. The title of Bob Woodward’s latest book Fear is not accidental. As Woodward reports, fear in the White House reflects the same fear that has gripped many in this country. When we are satisfied and certainly when we seek verisimilitude (kinda sorta) “truth” that helps us feel good rather than face a common reality, we destroy the very foundation of all we hold dear. Truth suffers at the hands of the fear that grips us all. But as Michiko Kakutani seems to suggest, the truth might be the only true bulwark which can help us recover.
- Short audiobook excerpt from the introduction of The Death of Truth
- Michiko Kakutani’s recent and archived articles written for the New York Times