Book Recommendation: The Death of Truth

Post-truth and fake news have become bit of a literary genre lately. Not that they wouldn’t fully deserve to be properly examined, it’s just that there’s very little that can be said in conclusion about either of them: don’t rely on your social media feed for news. Read proper newspapers and books. If something seems to bombastic to be true, it probably isn’t, so check. There. Not that difficult. 

There was one take on post-truth that I was actually looking forward to reading, namely by Michiko Kakutani, former chief book critic of the New York Times. Her ​Death of Truth came out in July and it’s dedicated to “journalists everywhere working to report the news.” Expectations were high, given that she’s Pulitzer Price -winning literary critic and certainly knows good writing.

The Death of Truth is a great read. It’s clearly written by someone with vast knowledge of literature, history and politics which all give the text authority and depth. I almost fell into a comfortable lull and surrendered to the expert argumentation. Death of Truth is concise, dense and well referenced, there’s very little blah and even if the reader knows where the post-truth phenomenon really points at, it is given proper context and a bit of history. In other words, it’s not (just) a Trump-administration criticism.

A few interesting points:

Feelings:

What does it mean when the collective navel-gazing gives breeding ground for total subjectivity? When Trump was asked whether he believes Putin was behind Russian election intervention, he said “I believe he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the elections”. Another political candidate, challenged about statistics he used said the following: “As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel and I’ll let you go with the theoreticians.” 

​The memoir boom and the popularity of blogging at the turn of the millennium would eventually culminate in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume autobiographical novel – filled with minutely detailed descriptions, drawn from the author’s own daily life. Along the way, there were also a lot of self-indulgent, self-dramatising works by other authors that would have been better left in writers’ private journals or social media accounts.”

Perspective:

As Christiane Amanpour said in a speech on press freedom in the context of media coverage of the 2016 presidential elections: 

It appeared much of the (US) media got itself into knots trying to differentiate between balance, objectivity, neutrality, and crucially, truth. We cannot continue the old paradigm – let’s say like over global warming, where 99.9 percent of the evidence is given equal play with the tiny minority of deniers. I learned a long ago, covering the ethnic cleansing and genocide in Bosnia never to equate victim with aggressor, never to create a false moral or factual equivalence, because then you are an accomplice to the most unspeakable crimes and consequences. I believe in being truthful, not neutral. And I believe we should stop banalising the truth.”

​The endless you-loop:

Algorithms give us information that confirms our view of the world. Kakutani argues that this is the big reason why liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, find it increasingly harder to agree on facts and a shared sense of reality is becoming elusive. It would also explain why elites in New York and Washington were so shocked by Trump’s win. 

As such this is nothing new. Entertainment and news are increasingly blurred and there’s too much information available. Therefore material that is sensational and outrageous rises to the top, along everything that cynically appeal to the reptilian part of our brains – to primitive emotions like fear and hate and anger. 

Steve Bannon confirmed this: “We got elected on Drain the Swamp, Lock Her Up, Build a Wall. This was pure anger. Anger and fear is what gets people to the polls.”

The Death of Truth is clearly not a hilarious feel-good read. Calling it an alarming wake-up call would be a cliche, too. To me it’s one of those necessary modern manifestos that must be read – such as Mary Beard’s ​Women and Power and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists. There’s an essay about the book by Kakutani herself in The Paris Review, if you cannot be bothered to read the whole thing (which is not terribly long anyway, so you might as well read the entire book). 

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