I’m barely halfway through The Death of Truth (2018), but I’m already far beyond convinced that this slender book should be a “must read” for everyone, as well-regarded CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria enthused on his Sunday morning show this week.
Written by former New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning chief book critic Michiko Kakutani, this riveting analysis of the terrifying loss of clarity in American politics explains how the concept of even provable, irrefutable, objective truth has by now been made to seem routinely debatable by a large swathe of the American public.
How in the hell did this happen, she asks, and then goes on to clearly, objectively, comprehensively explain exactly how. And it’s as simple as textbook fascism — the time-honored tactics of nationalistic authoritarians in inflicting aggressive, domineering right-wing governments on their societies.
Liars, liars everywhere
The tactics can be boiled down to two words: gratuitous lying. Or even just one word: mendacity. It’s lying with such shameful disregard for reality and honor, and with such reckless and relentless flamboyance and disingenuity that the entire electorate becomes confused and unable to reliably discern fact from fiction. And that, of course, is the point, to allow authoritarians to consolidate more power while their subjects are disoriented and distracted.
We’ve seen these tactics before in previous generations, particularly on the eve of World War II, as virulent fascist leaders in Spain (Francisco Franco), Italy (Benito Mussolini) and Germany (Adolf Hitler) rose together in black-shirted, jack-booted, murderous rage to plunge the world into a catastrophic, needless war in which tens of millions of innocent people perished. Kakutani writes in her book’s introduction:
“Two of the most monstrous regimes in human history [Nazi Germany and
Soviet Russia] came to power in the 20th century, and both were predicated upon the violation and despoiling of truth, upon the knowledge that cynicism and weariness and fear can make people susceptible to the lies and false promises of leaders bent on unconditional power.”
As Arendt wrote in Origins:
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”
It’s happening again today
Fast forward to today, this refers not to the fact-addled minions of President Donald Trump’s base but to the rest of us, the largely sidelined majority, who are in danger of being dulled to reality by this tsunami of ill-intentioned deceptions.
So that readers won’t miss the authoritarian tenor of her argument — the book’s subheading is Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump — Kakutani liberally quotes Hanna Arendt, who literally “wrote the book” on despotism (defined as “the exercise of absolute power, especially in cruel and oppressive ways) with her groundbreaking The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). You may recall this infamous term from Origins: “the banality of evil,” which alludes to the utter workaday casualness of Nazi death camp executioners in dispatching unsuspecting Jews to their deaths in gas chambers.
Just another day at the office.
In Death, Kakutani notes with alarm that “Artendt’s words increasingly sound less like a dispatch from another century than a chilling mirror of the political and cultural landscape we inhabit today … as people, locked in their partisan silos and filter bubbles, are losing a sense of shared reality and the ability to communicate across social and sectarian lines.”
Kakutani stresses that she’s not drawing a bright line between the current American environment and the European fascist movement that led to World War II but spotlighting,
“… some of the conditions and attitudes — what Margaret Atwood has called the ‘danger flags’ in [novelist George] Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm — that make people susceptible to demagoguery and political manipulation, and nations easy prey for would-be autocrats. To examine how a disregard for facts, the displacement of reason by emotion, and the corrosion of language are diminishing the very value of truth, and what that means for America and the world.”
She notes that the Rand Corporation has coined the term “truth decay” to characterize the “diminishing role of facts and analysis” in the nation’s public life, joining current terms of “Newspeak” — a 1984 authoritarian term for propaganda — such as “fake news” and “alternative facts.” Which all now are used to corrupt such realities as potentially near-apocalyptic climate change and the profound, life-saving value of medicinal vaccination.Science and empirical knowledge of any kind, if you can imagine, have become bogeymen in the Trump administration.
But, truth (of which science is a bastion) is not flexible, as Kukatani and Arendt before her warn. It is what it is, and its purposeful erosion should alarm everyone. Arendt writes:
“… [truth] is always in danger of being perforated by single lies or torn to shreds by the organized lying of groups, nations, or classes, or denied and distorted, often carefully covered up by reams of falsehoods or simply allowed to fall into oblivion. Facts need testimony to be remembered and trustworthy witnesses to be established in order to find a secure dwelling place in the domain of human affairs.”
Therefore, Americans, be afraid — very afraid — as the president of the United States and all his men (and women) increasingly call into question the honor and veracity of the very American and international institutions and experts that have traditionally collaborated to protect us all, using truth as a weapon against tyranny and injustice. The FBI. The CIA. The IRS. The State Department. The Judiciary. Nato. The U.N.
What ‘Deep State’?
They are all part of the “Deep State,” don’t you know, conspiring to maliciously destroy a president for no other reason than their own selfish, partisan ends.
Except there’s zero evidence available to confirm that, just lies from the administration and its right-wing sycophants in politics and the media.
Meanwhile, far more than a handful of close Trump confidents have either pled guilty to federal felonies in regard to lying about contacts with a foreign enemy [Russia], or are under indictment. And a massive majority of the electorate continues to oppose the president, who, don’t forget, was elected in an Electoral College fluke in 2016 while losing popular vote by nearly three million ballots.
And it looks increasingly likely that the president himself faces serious, perhaps fatal, legal jeopardy. Which doesn’t even count the confirmed 8,158 false and misleading statements he uttered in his first two years in office, according to a Washington Post Fact Checker report.
Those are the facts.
Read this excellent book to find out why that totally matters, and why ignoring its truths is perilous to our republic. And while you’re at it read former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s 2008 book “Fascism: A Warning,” in which she characterizes Donald Trump as “the most undemocratic president in modern U.S. history” and warns that signs of emerging fascism are everywhere in our country.
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FYI, Rick Snedeker’s new memoir — 3,001 Arabian Days — is now available in paperback and ebook formats on Amazon, here. It’s the story of growing up in an American oil camp in the Saudi Arabian desert from 1953-1962.
If you’ve already read “3,001 Arabian Days,” the author would be honored if you’d post a reader review on my Amazon page. Thanks!
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