This morning I'd just finished Michiko Kakutani's book, "The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump," when a New York Times story popped into my attention: "Giuliani Says 'Truth Isn't Truth' in Defense of Trump's Legal Strategy."
Here's an excerpt from the story, which reports on today's Meet the Press interview between Chuck Todd and Giuliani.
Mr. Giuliani replied he would not be rushed into having Mr. Trump testify “so that he gets trapped into perjury.”
“And when you tell me that, ‘You know, he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry,’ well, that’s so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth,” Mr. Giuliani said.
“Truth is truth,” Mr. Todd insisted.
“No, it isn’t truth. Truth isn’t truth,” Mr. Giuliani said as Mr. Todd leaned his head onto his hand.
“Truth isn’t truth?” Mr. Todd asked, appearing stunned and at one point looking up. “This is going to become a bad meme.”
“Don’t do this to me,” Mr. Giuliani replied, his hand to his head, mimicking Mr. Todd. “Donald Trump says, ‘I didn’t talk about Flynn with Comey.’ Comey says, ‘You did talk about it.’ So tell me what the truth is.”
Well, I'm glad to answer that question.
The truth is what actually happened during the conversation between Trump and Comey. This is an objective fact. If a camera had been recording that conversation, only one event would be observed, not two. In everyday life (as contrasted with the quantum realm) things either are or they are not.
There's no in-between state. Whatever Trump said to Comey, and whatever Comey said to Trump, there's only one actuality -- what truly happened.
Now obviously people can have different recollections of what happened. Human consciousness is inherently subjective. But underlying our individual views of the world is an undeniably objective reality.
If that reality didn't exist, the interview between Todd and Giuliani wouldn't have been possible, since they would have existed in separate realms, each unable to recognize the other, much less converse in the English language.
This notion that truth exists, and it is possible for us to come to agreement about what it consists of from our shared human perspective, shouldn't be controversial. For most of human history, there's been a general consensus that, as the X-Files famously put it, "The truth is out there."
Or, in my favorite quote on this subject, which comes from Philip K. Dick, "Reality is that, which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."
But in her book, Kakutani observes that truth has been under attack for quite a few years.
For decades now, objectivity -- or even the idea that people can aspire toward ascertaining the best available truth -- has been falling out of favor. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's well-known observation -- "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts" -- is more timely than ever: polarization has grown so extreme that voters in Red State America and Blue State America have a hard time even agreeing on the same facts.
True. However, conservatives are much more prone to accepting fake news than liberals are. Later in the book Kakutani writes about the founder of a company, Disinfomedia, that oversees several fake news sites.
The founder of Disinfomedia, identified by NPR as one Jestin Coler, claimed that he started the company to show how easily fake news spreads and that he enjoys "the game." He said that he and his writers "tried to do similar things to liberals" but those efforts didn't go viral the way stories aimed at Trump supporters do.
The facts have a well-known liberal bias thus is both a joke and a truism.
In today's Trumpian world, which hopefully will come to an end in 2020, it is conservatives who have the least respect for truthful facts. This is odd, since Kakutani describes how the philosophy of postmodernism and deconstruction came to be popular on both college campuses and the culture at large.
Deconstruction, in fact, is deeply nihilistic, implying that the efforts of journalists and historians -- to ascertain the best available truths through the careful gathering and weighing of evidence -- are futile. It suggests that reason is an outdated value, that language is not a tool for communication, but an unstable and deceptive interface that is constantly subverting itself.
Proponents of deconstruction don't believe that the intent of an author confers meaning on a text (they think that's up to the reader/viewer/recipient), and many postmodernists go so far as to suggest that the idea of individual responsibility is overrated, as the scholar Christopher Butler puts it, for promoting "a far too novelistic and bourgeois belief in the importance of individual human agency in preference to an attribution to underlying economic structures."
Thus it's more than a little strange that today it is liberals who are the strongest defenders of objective truth, while conservatives have largely joined the ranks of relativists who used to come in for scorn when, say, feminists attacked the notion that "dead white guy" philosophers should be studied with respect in university courses.
Kakutani observes that "Donald Trump is as much a symptom of the times as he is a dangerous catalyst." The war on truth didn't start with Trump and it won't end with him either.
In the last few pages of her disturbing, yet engrossing, book, she reminds the reader that the founders of our country were deeply committed to Enlightenment ideals and the unfettered pursuit of truth. Here's some quotes from the final chapter. The first is depressing, the others more optimistic.
Trump's lies, his efforts to redefine reality, his violation of norms and rules and traditions, his mainstreaming of hate speech, his attacks on the press, the judiciary, the electoral system --- all are reasons that the democracy watchdog group Freedom House warned that year one of the Trump administration had brought "further, faster erosion of America's own democratic standards than at any other time in memory," and all are reasons that Orwell's portrait of an authoritarian state, in which Big Brother tries to control all narratives and define the present and the past, is newly relevant.
...There are no easy remedies, but it's essential that citizens defy the cynicism and resignation that autocratic and power-hungry politicians depend upon to subvert resistance.
...Without commonly agreed-upon facts -- not Republican facts and Democratic facts, not the alternative facts of today's silo-world -- there can be no rational debate over policies, no substantive means of evaluating candidates for political office, and no way to hold elected officials accountable to the people.
Without truth, democracy is hobbled. The founders recognized this, and those seeking democracy's survival must recognize it today.