Friday, July 27, 2018

The Death Of Truth

Michiko Kakutani was a book critic at The New York Times for more than three decades. She has written The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump.

Bridey Heing, Longreads:
[I]n this tight volume [160 pages], Kakutani teases out seemingly disparate strands of cultural and political developments in the United States and weaves them together into a thorough yet readable narrative of how America grew into a place where truth is subjective, and a reality TV star can become its leader. ...

This work is interested less in the fanaticism of true believers than in the complicity of the average citizen, and the ways in which the entire system shifted away from factuality to subjectivity over the past sixty or so years.

[H]er analysis of cultural trends and the rise of subjectivity adds most to the conversation — and is perhaps the most controversial of her targets. ... "The postmodern argument that all truths are partial (and a function of one's perspective) led to the related argument that there are many legitimate ways to understand or represent an event...[I]t's also been exploited by those who want to make the case for offensive or debunked theories, or who want to equate things that cannot be equated." ...

She quotes Newt Gingrich, the architect in many ways of the Republican party we currently have, from a 2016 interview in which he makes false claims regarding crime rates. When called out for claiming FBI statistics were only "theoretically true," he responded, "What I said was equally true. People feel it."

That attitude — that an opinion, if deeply felt, can stand counter to a fact — is likely all-too familiar at this point. ... The Trump administration, with their alternative facts, is speaking the language of a society that leans more heavily on opinion than objective reality and has become more reliant on personal narrative than fact for understanding the world around them. ...

As a result, opinions that are not backed up by facts are given airtime and normalized by a mass media that does not know how to navigate a surreal world they, in part, helped build — perpetuating the cycle rather than breaking out of it.
A lengthy excerpt from the book was published by The Guardian.
If a novelist had concocted a villain like Trump – a larger-than-life, over-the-top avatar of narcissism, mendacity, ignorance, prejudice, boorishness, demagoguery and tyrannical impulses (not to mention someone who consumes as many as a dozen Diet Cokes a day) – she or he would likely be accused of extreme contrivance and implausibility. ... But the more clownish aspects of Trump the personality should not blind us to the monumentally serious consequences of his assault on truth and the rule of law, and the vulnerabilities he has exposed in our institutions and digital communications. 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 blase about truth-telling and were there not systemic problems with how people get their information and how they've come to think in increasingly partisan terms.

With Trump, the personal is political, and in many respects he is less a comic-book anomaly than an extreme, bizarro-world apotheosis of many of the broader, intertwined attitudes undermining truth today, from the merging of news and politics with entertainment, to the toxic polarisation that's overtaken American politics, to the growing populist contempt for expertise. ...

For decades now, objectivity – or even the idea that people can aspire toward ascertaining the best available truth – has been falling out of favour. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s well-known observation that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts” is more timely than ever: polarisation has grown so extreme that voters have a hard time even agreeing on the same facts. This has been exponentially accelerated by social media, which connects users with like-minded members and supplies them with customised news feeds that reinforce their preconceptions, allowing them to live in ever narrower silos. ...

Orwell wrote that "political chaos is connected with the decay of language", divorcing words from meaning and opening up a chasm between a leader's real and declared aims. This is why the US and the world feel so disoriented by the stream of lies issued by the Trump White House and the president's use of language to disseminate distrust and discord. And this is why authoritarian regimes throughout history have co‑opted everyday language in an effort to control how people communicate ...

[Trump's] personal assault on the English language. His incoherence (his twisted syntax, his reversals, his insincerity, his bad faith and his inflammatory bombast) is emblematic of the chaos he creates and thrives on, as well as an essential instrument in his liar's toolkit. His interviews, off‑teleprompter speeches and tweets are a startling jumble of insults, exclamations, boasts, digressions, non sequiturs, qualifications, exhortations and innuendos – a bully's efforts to intimidate, gaslight, polarise and scapegoat.

Precise words, like facts, mean little to Trump, as interpreters, who struggle to translate his grammatical anarchy, can attest. Chuck Todd, the anchor of NBC's Meet the Press, observed that after several of his appearances as a candidate Trump would lean back in his chair and ask the control booth to replay his segment on a monitor – without sound: "He wants to see what it all looked like. He will watch the whole thing on mute."

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Real Question: "How Many Brown People Can Live In America And It Still Be America?"

The Southwest Political Report, June 20, 2018
Donald Trump isn't anti immigrant. He's a White Supremacist. This isn't about immigrants. Melania Trump is an immigrant. This is not about the children of immigrants. Ivanka Trump is the child of an immigrant. Eric Trump is the child of an immigrant. Donald Trump Jr. is the child of an immigrant. Joe Arpaio is the child of immigrants. ... The Klansman Fred Trump was the son of immigrants. ...

This is not about immigration. This is not about the law. This is about the fear of a Brown America. ... [H]ow many Brown people with Spanish last names can live in America and it still be America? This is the question that animates this so called immigration debate. It is the driving force behind it. This is what is meant by infestation. This is what is meant by animals. This is what is meant by drug dealers and rapists. This is what is meant by bad hombres. This is what is meant by calling El Salvador a shithole. This is what drives for the call for a wall. This is what is meant by saying Mexico will pay. ...

The theme of Brown people as a threat to White standards, civility and safety is an old trope in US politics. ... Trump did not make these politics up. But he picked them up and ran with them in a way we have not seen for generations. ...

[This] is about the fear of becoming. This fear of White people being forced to assimilate to a growing population that in regions of the country already outnumber them ...

This isn't about immigration. It never has been. It is about the changing face of America. ...

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Book 6 Of My Struggle Will Be Published On September 4!

Amazon and Penguin Random House say September 4. (Penguin UK says August 30.)
The final installment in the long awaited, internationally celebrated My Struggle series.

The full scope and achievement of [Karl Ove] Knausgaard's monumental work is evident in this final installment of his My Struggle series. Grappling directly with the consequences of Knausgaard's transgressive blurring of public and private, Book Six is a troubling and engrossing look into the mind of one of the most exciting artists of our time. Knausgaard includes a long essay on Hitler and Mein Kampf, particularly relevant (if not prescient) in our current global climate of ascending dictatorships.
My Struggle is a series of six autobiographical "novels" in which Knausgaard reveals the banalities and humiliations of his life, his private pleasures, and his dark thoughts (as Wikipedia puts it). Knausgaard, who is Norwegian, published the six books from 2009–2011. The English translations began appearing in 2013.

I have no idea how I missed about 97% of the hype, but I did. It wasn't until December 6, 2016, that I opened Book 1. I was immediately addicted, and read all five books - a total of roughly 2,700 pages - in one month. It was (with perhaps one exception) the most enjoyable and astounding reading experience of my life*. And I want to re-read the five books right before diving into Book 6 (which is reportedly 1,264 pages!).

*: Evan Hughes of The New Republic said the books are "like opening someone else's diary and finding your own secrets". Zadie Smith admitted, at one point: "I need the next volume like crack."

In 2013, the Guardian stated that My Struggle "deserves to be called perhaps the most significant literary enterprise of our times":
A man in his 30s, married and living in a pleasant city in Norway, with his first novel just published to much acclaim, Knausgaard suffers from an indefinable malaise: his writing feels obstructed and forced, and its motivations uneasily egotistical; his personal and domestic life seem to constrict him while being unarguably the fruit of his own free choices. ...

What unfolds is a painstakingly detailed account of mid-life, as Knausgaard documents his meeting and relationship with a new partner in Stockholm, their progress into marriage and parenthood, their construction of domestic space and social life, the evolution of their familial relationships and the changing politics of their own bond. These are the universal themes from which My Struggle draws its abundance, and since there is no narrative requirement to attenuate them, Knausgaard finds himself in the position of being able to write about modern middle-class private life with a compendiousness and precision that are entirely singular and new.
One month later, the Guardian noted that in Book 2,
Knausgaard is brutally, painstakingly, viciously truthful – or at least appears to be – about his relationship with his wife and children. Linda is mostly presented as a stubborn, lazy, self-obsessed depressive, while his children are often seen as inconveniences, ignored and abandoned, or used as weapons in domestic disputes.
That is all true, but (a) there is much more in that book and (b) Knausgaard is at least every bit as "brutally truthful" about himself, sometimes to a shocking degree.

Book 3 concerns his childhood from ages 7-10 and Book 4 details his time as an 18-year-old teacher in a tiny fishing village in northern Norway. Book 5 finds Knausgaard in Bergen in his twenties, struggling to become a writer. (He supposedly wrote Book 5 - 550 pages - in only eight weeks.)

Friday, December 29, 2017

Stephen King: Under The Dome (2009)

The genesis of Under The Dome dates back to Stephen King's earliest years as a writer. In 1972, King began work on a novel entitled Under The Dome. (1976 and 1978 have also been given as possible starting dates.) He returned to the idea in 1982, retitled it The Cannibals, but eventually abandoned the manuscript.

"I've got about four-hundred-and-fifty pages done and it is all about these people who are trapped in an apartment building," King said at the time. "Worst thing I could think of. And I thought, wouldn't it be funny if they all ended up eating each other? It's very, very bizarre because it's all on one note. And who knows whether it will be published or not?"

(In September 2009, King posted a 61-page excerpt from The Cannibals (the first four chapters of the original typescript) to his website. An additional 63 pages were posted the following month. These pages are still available for download.)

King has said these two unfinished works "were two very different attempts to utilize the same idea, which concerns itself with how people behave when they are cut off from the society they've always belonged to. Also, my memory of The Cannibals is that it, like Needful Things, was a kind of social comedy. The new Under the Dome is played dead straight."

From the very beginning, I saw it as a chance to write about the serious ecological problems that we face in the world today. The fact is we all live under the dome. We have this little blue world that we've all seen from outer space, and it appears like that's about all there is. It's a natural allegorical situation, without whamming the reader over the head with it. I don't like books where everything stands for everything else. It works with Animal Farm: You can be a child and read it as a story about animals, but when you're older, you realize it's about communism, capitalism, fascism. That's the genius of Orwell. But I love the idea about isolating these people, addressing the questions that we face. ... We have to conclude we're on our own, and we have to deal with it.
King, on UTD's politics:
I was angry about incompetency. Obviously I'm on the left of center. I didn't believe there was justification for going into the war in Iraq. And it just seemed at the time, that in the wake of 9/11, the Bush Administration was like this angry kid walking down the street who couldn't find whoever sucker punched him, and so turned around and punched the first likely suspect. Sometimes the sublimely wrong people can be in power at a time when you really need the right people. I put a lot of that into the book. ... The [Bush-Cheney] administration interested me because of the aura of fundamentalist religion that surrounded it and the rather amazing incompetency* of those two top guys. I thought there is something blackly humorous in it. So in a sense, Under the Dome is an apocalyptic version of The Peter Principle.
On an otherwise normal October afternoon, the small Maine town of Chester's Mill is thrown into chaos when some type of barrier cuts it off from the rest of the world. The barrier (or force field, perhaps) conforms to the exact boundaries of the town. It rises to a height of five miles, while also extending at least 100 feet into the ground. No one can come in or leave - and that includes deliveries of food and medicine.

This sounds promising, but the book (well, as much of it as I could stand) is a huge bore. King takes his time introducing the various characters and how they relate to each other. The narrative moves way too slowly - and there is no need for this book to be more than 1,000 pages long.

Big Jim Rennie is a town selectman, who yearns to run Chester's Mill his way. When the chief of police is killed on what becomes known as Dome Day - he stands too close to the dome and his pacemaker explodes - Rennie sees his chance to grab control.

Dale Barbara, a former Iraq War vet, had been working in the town and was about to leave when the dome appeared. As the US government takes an interest in the Chester's Mill situation, Barbara becomes the government's point-man inside the dome, much to Rennie's dismay.

I gave up after page 250 or so when it seemed like King was determined to explore the secret life of every single person in town, in minute detail. There are a couple of murders early in the book and we learn that Big Jim has been both embezzling from the town and running a meth lab (with the consent of one of the town's pastors).

When I looked online to see how the story was resolved, I was very glad I quit when I did. The New York Post's review noted that Under The Dome's finale "pales to the buildup. King is better at characters and situations than causes and reasons." And John Dugdale of The Sunday Times echoed the thoughts of other reviewers when he stated that readers deserved a more satisfying payoff for staying with King for 1,000 pages:
King's inability to raise his game—to relinquish the methods of his more straightforward tales of the paranormal—prevents you taking his socio-political vision seriously. The simple division of characters into goodies and baddies, the use of magic, the homespun style, the sentimental ending, the vital role played by a dog in defeating the forces of evil—all of these belong in fiction for older children, not the grown-up novels he's bent on emulating.
*: How can King (or anyone else, for that matter) think that the Bush administration was incompetent? Those motherfuckers did just about every legal and illegal thing they wanted to do - and no one stopped them. When you look at things from their point of view, their time in power was an enormous success. And then Obama continued and expanded their inhumane plans for another eight years. Mission Accomplished!

Next: Full Dark, No Stars.

Monday, December 25, 2017

"A Fundamental Divide On What It Means To Live In A Society"

Some people think you should converse (or even debate) with people whose beliefs differ from yours.

I do not agree. I do not need to 'stay informed' of what the other side thinks. (Those beliefs are everywhere, they are part of the atmosphere, and I will absorb them without even trying.) I do not believe it is healthy for me to listen to words that will only disgust or depress or frustrate or anger me.

I do not need to eat shit in order to better understand (or reinforce my love of) my favourite foods. I know how I feel and I am not so presumptuous as to think my words will change anyone's mind. So, really, what is the point?

Kayla Chadwick:
I'm perfectly content to pay taxes that go toward public schools, even though I'm childless and intend to stay that way, because all children deserve a quality, free education. If this seems unfair or unreasonable to you, we are never going to see eye to eye.

If I have to pay a little more with each paycheck to ensure my fellow Americans can access health care? SIGN ME UP. Poverty should not be a death sentence in the richest country in the world. If you're okay with thousands of people dying of treatable diseases just so the wealthiest among us can hoard still more wealth, there is a divide between our worldviews that can never be bridged.

I don't know how to convince someone how to experience the basic human emotion of empathy. ... Our disagreement is not merely political, but a fundamental divide on what it means to live in a society, how to be a good person ...

I'm done trying to convince these hordes of selfish, cruel people to look beyond themselves.

Monday, December 18, 2017