Michiko Kakutani used to be an important person in the world of people who cared about book reviews in the New York Times. This was not a world at all, so much as a small village whose borders could be seen from any tall building in Manhattan. Still, her opinion was considered important. Kakutani was notorious for actually reading the books she reviewed, and for not thinking of the reviewer’s desk as an outpost of the publisher’s press office. So, though book reviews are generally not worth reading, hers sometimes were.
When Kakutani left the Times in 2017, it was rumored that she had jumped before being pushed by the downward-dumbing of the Times’ arts’ content. Demonstrating a previously untapped talent for comedy, she announced that she was leaving in order to write about the status of truth in the age of Trump. That sounded like a pitch for the kind of book that gets a lot of reviews and then gets remaindered and pulped in gratifyingly short order. And here comes Kakutani’s highly palpable and eminently remainderable The Death of Truth.
No need to buy the book. The Guardian, that fearless defender of truth, free speech and equity whose website is sustained by an offshore trust in a Caribbean island, published what were purported to be the interesting bits last weekend. These bits are not at all interesting in themselves. Most of them read like literary Rohypnol, as if our brains are being softened so we’ll renew that online subscription to the Times.
Kakutani drones on and on in a tone reminiscent of an unsigned editorial from the Times or the Guardian, but without the benefit of compression. All of her big ideas are familiar but, as you’d expect from someone who spent half a lifetime at the Times, sour and empty like flatulence. She even quotes Hannah Arendt—always the mark of an impostor. Some of the analysis is risible, as when Kakutani cites that expert banaliser of the truth and all-round intellectual faker Christiane Amanpour, who tells us, but not, of course, her editors at CNN, to ‘stop banalising the truth’. A lot of it is patronising, as when Kakutani reminds us, the little people, that Donald Trump is ‘the 45th president of the US’, in case we are too pig-ignorant to count that high on our stubby little trotters. And a lot more of it is the self-soothing gibberish of the affluent:
‘Around the world, waves of populism and fundamentalism are elevating appeals to fear and anger over reasoned debate, eroding democratic institutions, and replacing expertise with the wisdom of the crowd.’
It is the Internet, not populism and fundamentalism, that has allowed the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ to pressure the experts and the elites. It was populism, albeit of a different kind to the current brand, that has allowed the elites to isolate themselves from the voters; the globalising, feel-good populism of Bill Clinton, for instance. The democratic institutions of the United States are absorbing the Trumpian shock treatment just fine; the institutions of the Democratic Party, not so well. As for fundamentalism—Kakutani, in her call for truth, cannot bring herself to mention Islam by name—fear and anger are perfectly reasonable responses to the perverse aggression of the Islamists who seek to detonate, decapitate and infibulate.
The interesting bit, the diamond in the tide of mental slurry, is this: Kakutani, whether she knows it or not, is a Never-Trumpin’ conservative—a liberal intellectual who has been slowly mugged by reality, then driven to outrage by the erosion of cultural and critical values.
‘For decades now,’ Kakutani says with a pronounced rightward lean, ‘objectivity—or even the idea that people can aspire towards ascertaining the best available truth—has been falling out of favor.’ Identity politics has replaced ‘objective truth’ and ‘empirical evidence gathered by research’ with political cant about ‘positioning’ by ‘race, religion, gender, background’.
Take that, campus lefties. And while you’re adjusting your ethnically sensitive Hallowe’en costume, see how this one goes down in the faculty lounge: ‘relativism has been ascendant since the culture wars of the 1960s… it was embraced by the New Left, who were eager to expose the biases of western, bourgeois, male-dominated thinking; and by academics promoting the gospel of postmodernism’.
Kakutani might have added that the rot is no less advanced in her business. The publishing element of the media industry—they way she’s going, she’ll soon be calling it ‘the MSM’—is complicit in what she calls ‘truth decay’. Publishers pressure authors to give blurbs, publicity puffs claiming that the mediocre novel in your hands is ‘wise’ and ‘funny’ and might ‘change your life’, or that the author is a ‘genius’. The authors, effortlessly meeting Dr. Johnson’s definition of a fool, don’t even ask for money for writing these words. This is cynical and nihilistic, a Madison Avenue version of postmodern relativism.
For Kakutani, the assault on truth began ‘decades ago’, in experimental Modernist literature by ‘innovators such as William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Ford Madox Ford and Vladimir Nabokov’. Through ‘multiple points of view, unreliable narrators and intertwining storylines’, they developed the techniques that allowed Bill Clinton to argue that truth ‘depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is’. Kakutani prefers the ‘Balzacian detail’ of Tom Wolfe and the 19th Century realists—you know, the novel as the aesthetic mirror of bourgeois capitalism.
Kakutani will say that she’s not a conservative, she’s a classical liberal. But that’s what we all say. Meanwhile, if she carries on playing her truth cards to the right and red-pilling the readers of literary fiction, she’ll have a whole new career—the Jordan Peterson of the book clubs.
Dominic Green is Culture Editor of Spectator USA.