The death of truth
The endangered species list has a new addition. It is truth and I am shaking my head and wondering how such a treasured species ended up there.
I am not the only one.
“How did truth and reason become such endangered species?” Michiko Kakutani asks in a new book titled The Death of Truth. “And what does their impending demise portend for our public discourse and the future of our politics and governance?”
Kakutani is a former chief book critic for the New York Times. As well as asking the question, she provides some thoughts about our move away from truth and reason.
Hers is a small book, 173 pages not counting an index of references, and one of its strengths is its references to what other authors have written about the decline of truth and informed debate. She quotes the writings (she must have read tens of thousands of books as a literary critic) of George Orwell, Tom Wolfe, Philip Roth and many others, including Pope Francis.
The Death of Truth is a straightforward attack on U.S. President Trump, a proven serial liar, however anyone tired of hearing about that man (and many of us are) should ignore those parts and focus on Kakutani’s explanation of the cultural forces that have contributed to what has become a global problem.
The world began to change significantly in the 1960s with shattering events such as the assassination (and associated conspiracy theories) of U.S. President John Kennedy, then the humiliating defeat of the U.S. and its allies in Vietnam. People became disillusioned and uncertain, and faith in governments, politicians and institutions began to falter and fade.
The growth of television, then the internet and its social media sites, gave people more sources of varied news. News and information could be spread instantaneously, often without the restrictive safeguards of professional news gathering and distribution.
The political world, always known for manipulating news and information, ratcheted up efforts to avoid transparency by defining reality on its own terms. That led us into the current state in which many politicians and others say that there is no such thing as objective truth but that one’s perspective decides what is true or not true.
We have created a post-truth world in which “alternative facts” and “fake news” are everyday expressions. Debates and conversations are conducted without facts, reason or intelligent information.
As a result we have chunks of population that believe fluorescent light bulbs are a government plot to calm people and turn them in automatons. Or, that Barack Obama should have been disqualified as president because he was born in Africa and was not a natural-born U.S. citizen.
Objective truth has been shrunk like heads in a head hunting movie and we have allowed opinions to be more important than facts. Opinions driven by the self-importance and narcissism whose growth was aided by the Me Generation of the 1970s.
Kakutani makes several references to Daniel J. Boorstin’s 1962 book The Image in which he argued that the idea of credibility was replacing the idea of truth. People were becoming less interested in whether something was a fact than in whether it was simply more convenient that it should be believed.
Boorstin, an American political historian, also wrote that people have a false image of what news really is. For instance, events such as news conferences and political debates are simply pseudo events, spectacles designed for politicians and product hucksters to sell whatever they want you to buy.
Boorstin argued that such events are contrivances and not real, naturally occurring news but people form beliefs from them, and therefore opinions on something that is not real.
The general public seems to have become indifferent to truth telling and that is dangerous as author Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1951 book Origins of Totalitarianism:
“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 and the distinction between true and false no longer exist.”
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, U.S. diplomat and politician, had an astute comment about truth and objectivity:
“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”