As we leave 2018 behind, I’m taking another look at a slim but weighty volume that’s pertinent to the year ahead, “The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump,” by Michiko Kakutani.
As the former chief book critic for The New York Times, Kakutanitook a bold step by retiring and becoming an author herself. Her book received praise but also tough reviews. It was cited as insightful and criticized as a mere survey of others’ thinking.
In any case,was precise in shining a spotlight on what would become the issue of the year and of our times: the fragile state of truth. This was a year in which the highlights included a Supreme Court nominee and the woman who accused him of sexual assault directly contradicting each other under oath with “100 percent” certainty. What was the truth?
Meanwhile, 2018 was also marked by revelations of Russia’s ongoing manipulation of U.S. social media to alter the outcome of our elections, President Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani declaring “truth isn’t truth” and special counsel Robert Mueller’s dogged efforts to find and document deceit involving Trump’s unlikely election.
The most prominent threat to society’s regard for truth is Trump’s daily disregard for it. (In 700 days, The Washington Post reports, “President Trump has made 7,546 false or misleading claims.”) Not long ago reporters and columnists shied from using the word “lie” to describe the president’s statements. Now they’re using it in stories and columns to the point where “lie” has lost its sting.
But protecting truth will require more than calling out Trump’s prevarications. The problem runs deeper than one politician. Truth is losing its certainty and its general acknowledgment. It’s being obscured by blind convictions, undermined by propaganda and swallowed by the fog of social media. The forces that distort truth are on the rise as key institutions that support it — good public schools and a vigorous free press — are weakening. That decline should be an urgent issue for writers, journalists, academics, political leaders, and all who value the strength and recognize the vulnerability of our democratic system.
Trump exploits the wobbly status of truth, but Kakutani argues that it’s a mistake to think he is the problem. The problem is that too many people are willing to tolerate politicians warping the truth and are careless about the veracity of information so long as it suits their views.
She writes that “It is unlikely that a candidate who had already been exposed during the campaign for his history of lying and deceptive business practices would have gained such popular support were portions of the public not somehow blase about truth telling and were there not more systematic problems with how people get their information and how they’ve come to think in increasingly partisan terms.”
In North Carolina, we can see the battered state of truth and the effects that has had on policy at the state level. Over the last several years we’ve been told and legislation has been based upon such falsehoods as these:
That gerrymandering is the will of the people. That tax cuts for the wealthy and large corporations improve the lot of working people. That voter ID will stop election fraud. That climate change isn’t caused by human activity. That renewable energy isn’t affordable.
In this up-is-down world, it’s a challenge to keep insisting that laws and policies be based on reason and reality, not fears and illusions. Indeed, the prevailing reaction to Trump’s non-stop distortions hasn’t been anger, but exhaustion.
The answer is to not give in. As Kakutani writes, “It’s essential that citizens defy the cynicism and resignation that autocrats and power-hungry politicians depend upon to subvert resistance.”
That’s a good resolution for 2019. Let’s be true to it.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@ newsobserver.com