Control of reality has become one of the defining issues of our times, and we are still learning how it impacts our personal freedoms and informs our political choices.
From polarised social media silos, dark Facebook advertising, and propaganda jostling with declining traditional media, to the diminishment of experts, false equivalence shaping news narratives, and paranoia-stoking bots. Control of reality can be as blunt as Trump’s administration removing environmental research from government websites. At other times, it is linguistic trickery, upending rational argument with bad faith or language designed to distract.
In the midst of the overwhelming confusion and new forms of digital noise which have characterised this decade, writing is emerging which has stepped back, taken stock, and placed what is happening in a wider context, to better understand the strange times we live in. As an alternative to the fast-paced and flawed timelines from which we gather information, long-form writing has the greater luxury of space and time to explore complex issues and, if no less bleak, restore some sense of understanding as to what’s going on. Here are some writers of non-fiction sharing intelligent perspectives on the theme of truth:
Call Them by Their True Names by Rebecca Solnit (Granta, 2018)
Rebecca Solnit’s latest essay collection posits that “Maybe changing the world means changing the story, the names, and the language in which we describe it. Calling things by their true names can also cut through the lies that excuse, disguise, avoid or encourage inaction, indifference, and obliviousness in the face of injustice and violence.” Written in the recent years marked by Trump’s presidential campaign and what is now unfolding, these essays are satisfyingly precise in what they tackle within themes of injustice. Solnit states in the foreword “I think of the act of naming as diagnosis […] once you name a disorder, you may be able to connect to the community afflicted by it, or build one. An sometimes what’s diagnosed can be cured.” The essay Twenty Million Missing Storytellers speaks of voter suppression, and points out that conversations emerging around who is statistically missing from lists of film-makers and media movers and shakers should include the politically disenfranchised for politics reflects the stories of who we are. Other essays hone in on climate change, gentrification, racism, sexism, and incarceration. Solnit’s writing is deft, aware, and full of recent references, but always characterised by thoughtful tone and insight. Like previous Solnit essay collections, Call Them by Their True Names crystallises cultural phenomena, and the result is affirming and direct.
The Death of Truth by Michiko Kakutani (HarperCollins / Tim Duggan 2018)
In this slim book Pulitzer-winning critic Michiko Kakutani pulls a thread through the decades, showing how truth has been diminished prior to a President in open warfare with it. The introduction opens with a quote from Hannah Arendt’s 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, “the ideal subject of totalitarian rule is […] people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e. the standards of thought) no longer exist.” Chapters centre around themes such as how fascist regimes have engineered everyday language, narcissism leading to extreme individualism, and the ‘filters, silos, and tribes’ of information output today. Kakutani argues postmodern deconstruction seeped from academia into the political mainstream resulting in subjectivity prized above objective fact, and how the idea of ‘perception is reality’ (as said by Republican strategist Lee Atwater in the 1980s) has been exploited alongside dog-whistle rhetoric stoking up malevolent forces. The Death of Truth often cites political, literary, and theoretical sources from the 1950s onwards to build a picture of growing detachment from truth and fact, placing contemporary relationships with truth in a longer cultural context. Despite its wealth of research, it’s still a reasonably quick read.
Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev (PublicAffairs, 2015)
Peter Pomerantsev draws on his experience working as a television producer in Moscow in the noughties to pull back the curtain on the “theatrical dystopia” of recent, affluent Russia. It’s both entertaining and chilling. “Russia had seen so many worlds flick through in such blistering progression – from communism to perestroika to shock therapy to penury to oligarchy to mafia stage to mega-rich – that its new heroes were left with the sense that life is just one glittering masquerade…” With a broadcaster’s eye for a striking story, Pomerantsev profiles larger than life characters who inhabit this ‘theatrical dystopia’, such as gangster turned filmmaker Vitaly Djomochka, the young Nina Ricci model Ruslana Korshunova who died after getting caught up by a cult, and Kremlin advisor Vladislav Surkov, said to be an architect of Russian image. Pomerantsev describes television as “the central mechanism of a new type of authoritarianism, one far subtler than twentieth-century strains” and how a Kremlin-directed reality on screen is malleable, “switching messages at will to its advantage, climbing inside everything,” mixing entertainment with politics, pulling the strings of puppet opposition and inciting fear. As attention turns to the potential of bots amplifying messages to impact global politics, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible is an insightful portrayal of the chaos of propaganda and individuals caught up in its flow.
Further Reading Beyond the Headlines
Hot topics aren’t always granted the depth of understanding they deserve. Here are a couple of noteworthy deeper dives.
The blue-collar American worker is often cited but little examined. Janesville by Pulitzer winning Amy Goldstein (Simon and Schuster, 2017) is a case study of an American city which lost a car manufacturing plant in the wave of the recession, showing how citizens coped with unexpected loss of security, civic identity, and broken promises by politicians. Goldstein spends a lot of time with several families whose multi-generation employment has ended, documenting their thoughts and fortunes over multiple years in the run up to the 2016 general election.
Immigration is an ongoing, painfully politicised topic in the US. If you’ve previously clicked on my sporadically updated blog, you might have heard me mention the gripping Tell Me How it Ends by Valeria Luiselli (Coffee House Press, 2017). Luiselli shares her experience volunteering as a translator for unaccompanied child migrants entering the US, describing their experiences being picked up by border patrol, answering a questionnaire they do not always understand and which cannot adequately reflect their needs, and being held in (literally cold) ICE centres. It’s empathetic and informative, showing the reality of hard-hearted policy. I reviewed it in full here.