The Death of Truth?
Michiko Katutani, The Death of Truth (NY: Tim Duggan Books, 2018)
Conversations about our so-called “post-truth” world expand and, now, move into a stage of violence were offence with the other leads to bomb threats and tweets. This loss of a sense of truth at the core of our discourse is troubling in so many ways. Its sources are not recent but the current outworking of post-truth narratives are terribly disturbing. It now goes far beyond notions of “fake-news”, the ways social media warp reality to fit one’s tribal viewpoints, or Russian meddling in democratic processes. The concerns range from questions about a crisis of democracy (thoughtful people are asking: “Is democracy dying?” – The Atlantic, October 2018) to the corruption of academic scholarship in such fields as cultural and identity studies. Christian’s have felt the need to defend the truth of Christianity in the modern era but today this question of truth goes far beyond the specific veracity of a particular truth claim to a widening cynicism about the reality of any kind of truth – its all but the particular narratives of contending groups and their claims to power.
This is where Michiko Katutani’s new book, The Death of Truth, offers important perspectives. Katutani, a Pulitzer Prize winning book critic who worked for many years with the New York Times, digs beneath headlines and tweets about our “post-truth” context to uncover roots of our situation. Her book is, unquestionably, about the socio-political situation represented by the Presidency of Donald Trump. She is unyielding in her critique of Trump but to be focused on this criticism is to miss important analysis she offers about the trajectories of Western societies since the mid-point of the last century. To grasp our malaise requires us to attend to movements and actions that have been at work since at least that point.
Katutani argues that this new situation, embodied and emboldened in the Trump’s Presidency with its endless tweets and erasure of distinctions between truth and lies, did not start with his rise to the Presidency; it’s been gestating since the eruptive transformations in the mid-point of the last century (long before then the seeds of this post-truth world were being planted by people like Ferdinand de Saussure who, as George Steiner describes in his book Real Presences, laid the basis for the modern suspicion of the relationship between word and truth). Each of her brief chapters propose a source of our post-truth world as she carries out archaeological digs into what each means. Her purpose is to explain why the role of reason and a belief in the reality of truth are evaporating in the unravelling of the American story. She draws on a wide range of writers and thinkers from across the political and social spectrum to tease out what has taken place. Her concern is about the drift into demagoguery and autocracy that only thrives when the idea of truth and reasonableness are cast aside. One result is our loss of trust in the social and political institutions that have undergirded Western democracies built as they are on a confidence in a common truth.
How did we enter this culture scape of divided tribes listening to and hearing only those who offer an echo chamber of ourselves? How did we create a tribalizing of society so that the other is re-objectified as enemy, where lies and falsehoods are no longer regarded as such? Katutani asks: “How did truth and reason become such an endangered species, and what does their impending demise portend for our public discourse and the future our politics and governance?” (15).
Her chapters cumulatively address this question. She notes that the irrational and xenophobic have come and gone throughout American history (but not just America) sourced by unaddressed grievances around demographic change, shifting social norms, economic transformations and that sense of marginalization wherein those who lead seem out of touch with the experiences of ordinary people’s everyday lives. Today, these elements aren’t episodic but normative. She names the sources forming this post-truth situation in terms of: the shift to a postmodern narrative, the emergence and dominance of a deconstructionist ethos as a basic form of discourse, the proliferation of new forms of social media with multiple news outlets and omnipresence of FB, Twitter etc.. The later, in their early stages promised a broadening of democratic debate and an ever more open society as increasing numbers of citizens would be able to debate with one another. The results are very different: a siloing of viewpoints and the relativization of of perspectives amidst a kaleidoscope of positions that produce not clarity or debate but a relativism where there is no truth only contested positions amongst tribes. The cumulative result is a loss of trust in practically all institutions and the rise of a subjectivity which, in the later part of the 20th century, the sociologist Christopher Lasch named a culture of narcissism (The Culture of Narcissism) with its focus on the Self and the dismissal of a desire to seek a common good. The result is an Orwellian co-opting of language to support hegemonic leaders or one’s own group. Social media calcifies this narcissism and tribal siloing so that the only “truth” that gets heard is the mirror image of one’s own. What now dominates our discourse are the trivial and inconsequential, the packaged non-contextual, the infomercials and tribal rants. We live in an attention deficit society driven by reptilian responses to tweets and posts. What is being lost is any sense of a common truth and a common good within which we are compelled to listen and wrestle with one another.
Katutani ends with an urgent call for a recommitment to being a people committed to there being truth around which we must order our common lives. Without this, she fears, the brilliance of America’s founding documents and institutions will be lost. Her analysis is important and her cautions need to be heeded but one wonders if this book is trying to close the barn door once the horses are out? What kinds of responses might we, as Christians, be called to in these divisive times? Katutani, like many good, thoughtful people on the right and left in America, are concerned about their nation, about the American story rooted “we take these truths to be self-evident”. But what if that story can’t be put back together? What if there is something far more at stake than remaking a nation?