When Michiko Kakutani ended her tenure of nearly 35 years as a Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic with the New York Times in July 2017, she announced her intention to “focus on longer pieces about politics and culture.” If The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump, her fiery takedown of the culture of lies personified by the presidency of Donald Trump is any indication, her voice soon may become as influential in the world of politics as it was in literary culture.
Kakutani covers ground that will be painfully familiar to regular readers of her former paper or the Washington Post. Unlike conventional political commentators, however, she digs deeper to seek out the “roots of falsehood in the Trump era.” It’s here that her immersion in literature provides a fresh perspective on our current dilemma: Kakutani lays some portion of the blame on postmodernism, with its “philosophical repudiation of objectivity,” expressed most clearly in the work of Jacques Derrida and other deconstructionists, who posited that there was “no such thing as truth.”
Though Trump likely isn’t familiar with these literary theories, Kakutani argues that, in coining terms like “fake news” and “alternative facts,” his allies are cynically employing the same notion of subjectivity to advance their political agenda. Aided by the right-wing media and highly effective Russian internet trolls, they’ve capitalized on America’s increasing tribalism and skepticism of traditional sources of expertise, employing “language as a tool to disseminate distrust and discord.”
As she envisions the inevitable post-Trump era, Kakutani is not optimistic. If there’s any hope of recovering from this relentless onslaught of falsehood, it will only come about through the efforts of an engaged citizenry, insistent on respect for our institutions and, above all, for the truth. Some of the critical information to fuel that engagement can be found in these pages.