Two of the most monstrous regimes in human history came to power in the Twentieth century, and both were predicated upon the violation and despoiling of truth, writes Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic Michiko Kakutani in the mind-piercing opening paragraph of her latest bestseller, The Death of Truth. No wonder, she cites the famous passage from Hannah Arendt’s book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, that the idea of the totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but the people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false no longer exists.
This might sound like a fake dispatch from the forgotten la-la land of truth, but the rise of what Kakutani calls “new nihilism” in the US has led to a post-truth cultural and political landscape we have come to inhabit—“a world in which fake news and lies are pumped out in industrial volume by Russian troll factories, emitted to an endless stream from the mouth and Twitter feed of the president of the United States, and sent flying across the world through social media accounts at lightning speed”, says Kakutani in a chilling warning. And one of the most debilitating consequences of the rise of “decay of truth” or politics of “alternative facts” is faith in science, humanism, progress, and liberty giving way to “its very opposite, terror and mass emotion”, argues Kakutani.
Believe it or not, the fuzzy totalitarianism of the Trump variety has spread far and wide in many parts of the world, most notably Russia, India and Turkey. This death of truth, or, more precisely, death of objective truth, factual truth or impartial truth, has come as an undisguised, decaffeinated, narcissistic experience for a herd of racists, xenophobes, mobsters, and radical sex predators from the right and the left. In this environment of liquid modernity, with over-normalised, hyper-real media images, mostly automated, augmented and simulated with bondage gear and swastika symbols, emptied of their original meanings, but still necrophilic enough, Veritas, the goddess of truth as she was depicted by great Spanish painter Goya in his famous painting, has died without any funeral rites or late-night know-nothing, post-modern revelries.
Of course, to lie is human, but when truth becomes propaganda—an instrument of unfettered pursuit of power—it acquires a despotic character and tragically embraces the Ayn Rand style of ‘selfie-happiness’, something Trump thoroughly enjoys in his zero-sum view of the world and his untrammelled narcissism. It is no secret that Hitler and Stalin’s faith in their versions of truth led not only to infliction of genocide on suffering humanity, but it also attempts to erase the very memories of truth. Imagine this: Frustrated with her increasing complaints about the “abnormal atmosphere, poisoning everything” in the party, Stalin warned the late Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, that if she misbehaved, he would make someone else Lenin’s widow. Revolving around the key question—are we living in a post-truth world, where ‘alternative facts’ (another name for lies), replace actual, earthy, sensuous, sweating truths—and weaving literature, social media, politics, history in a uniquely original way, Kakutani has reburnished insights of Hannah Arendt and George Orwell in a lacerating and penetrating analysis of “the dark, dark heart” of what ails democracy in general and contemporary US politics specifically.
Covering themes like the decline of reason, the new culture wars, rise of subjectivity, the vanishing of reality, the co-opting of language, attention deficit, fake news, the trolls in unvarnished, primer-like format of non-fiction, Kakutani maps the increasing geographies of “our truth-challenged times”. Written as field notes on falsehood in the Age of Trump for journalists everywhere working to report news, The Death of Truth is the most dazzling, frightening, and also intimate analysis of President Trump, tyranny and lies. Resonating with a raw lyrical force and conviction, she writes fearlessly that “Trump, of course, is a troll—both by temperament and by habit. His tweets and offhand taunts are the very essence of trolling—the lies, scorn, the invective, the trash talk, and the rabid non sequiturs of an angry, aggrieved, isolated, and deeply self-absorbed adolescent who lives in a self-constructed bubble and gets the attention he craves from bashing his enemies”. Further decoding his authoritarian personality, Kakutani points out that “precise words, like facts, mean little to Trump and he is equally nonchalant about spelling”. And his compulsive-obsessive habit of tweeting lies and more lies in a Me, Me, Me narcissistic tag comes from his past as a real estate developer and a reality TV star and an expert in what historian Daniel Boorstin calls ‘pseudo-events’.
Citing a 2017 Harvard study of more than 1.25 million stories (published online between April 1, 2015, and election day in November 2016), Kakutani confirms that pro-Trump audiences rely heavily on “insulated knowledge community” and use “social media as a backbone to transmit a hyper-partisan perspective to the world”. This partisanship is deeply toxic and polarising, resulting into what American commentators call tribal politics, a negative display of emotions and passions. Consider this untruth or truth. Trump lies so prolifically and with such velocity that The Washington Post calculated that he’d made 2,140 false or misleading claims during his first year in office—an average of nearly 5.9 lies a day, reveals Kakutani in a startling tone.
Reminiscent of James Barber’s classic study of the President Character in our graduate classes in American politics, Kakutani’s deconstruction of presidential character traits must go down as essential reading in deciphering the character traits of charismatic, popularly elected leaders—a new generation of tyrants—who have pushed their countries to authoritarian ways. Blaming trickle-down legacy of postmodernism in the contemporary politics of lying in the US, Kakutani argues provocatively that the right wing has borrowed from postmodernism—specifically, the idea that there is no such thing as objective truth in its attacks on increasing moral arc of science, reason, progress, equality and liberty, something Steven Pinker considers the most celebrated moment in the history of species on the earth. The postmodernism’s denial of objective truth, no doubt, has encouraged a more egalitarian discourse and made it possible for the voices of the previously disenfranchised to be heard. But phrases like ‘multiple truths’, ‘many sides’, ‘different perspectives’, and multiple ways of knowing have been exploited by conspiracy theorists and rabid right-wingers. For instance, President Trump equated progressives protesting against white supremacists in Charlottesville, saying “there were some very fine people on both sides”. And Mike Cernovich also invoked postmodernism in defence of his conspiracy theories and politics of lies. In other words, the darker truths of postmodernism have led to a “simplistic, nonsubstantive, nonhistorical and noncontextual” world of virtual reality as the paradise for neo-Nietzschean superheroes. At the end of the book, Kakutani agrees that there are no easy remedies for bringing back truth from the morgue, and hints rather subtly at the possibility of recreating Gandhi’s experiments with truth, an Indian way of self-confronting multiple ways of reaching objective truth. To conclude, “in the dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the splendid cities” for the truth of happiness, in the words of poet Arthur Rimbaud. As a poet, I believe in this prophecy of Rimbaud.
Ashwani Kumar is a poet, author and senior fellow of ICSSR at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai