Using Lit to Battle Fake News

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, “Writing the Declaration of Independence”


Few contemporary authors are better qualified to talk about “fake news” than Salman Rushdie. In a past post,  I discussed how he raises the issue in Midnight’s Children, at one point saying of Pakistan and its military dictatorship,

 in a country where the truth is what it is instructed to be, reality quite literally ceases to exist, so that everything becomes possible except what we are told is the case.

Therefore, I was not surprised that he would write a smart reflection for The New Yorker on novelists’ special responsibility in combatting Trumpism.

Rushdie starts the article with a telling exchange between Hal and Falstaff in Henry IV, Part I:

“What, art thou mad? Art thou mad?” Falstaff demands of Prince Hal, in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I. “Is not the truth the truth?” The joke, of course, is that he has been lying his head off, and the prince is in the process of exposing him as a liar.

In modern parlance, we could also say that Falstaff is gaslighting Hal. Rushdie observes that the passage is only too relevant to today’s politics:

In a time like the present, when reality itself seems everywhere under attack, Falstaff’s duplicitous notion of the truth seems to be shared by many powerful leaders. In the three countries I’ve spent my life caring about—India, the U.K., and the United States—self-serving falsehoods are regularly presented as facts, while more reliable information is denigrated as “fake news.”

Unfortunately, Rushdie says, we cannot return to some golden age where “truth was uncontested and universally accepted.” That’s because “truth has always been a contested idea.”

Rushdie gives a brief history of 19th century literary realism to make this point:

[I}n the nineteenth century there was a fairly widespread consensus about the character of reality. The great novelists of that time—Gustave Flaubert, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, and so on—could assume that they and their readers, broadly speaking, agreed on the nature of the real, and the grand age of the realist novel was built on that foundation. But that consensus was built on a number of exclusions. It was middle-class and white. The points of view of, for example, colonized peoples, or racial minorities—points of view from which the world looked very different to the bourgeois reality portrayed in, say, The Age of Innocence, or “Middlemarch, or “Madame Bovary—were largely erased from the narrative. The importance of great public matters was also often marginalized. In the entire œuvre of Jane Austen, the Napoleonic Wars are barely mentioned; in the immense œuvre of Charles Dickens, the existence of the British Empire is only glancingly recognized.

I’ve written several posts making this point (including this one), noting that figures such as Bertolt Brecht and Antonio Gramsci (writing about class), W. E. B. Du Bois and Chinua Achebe (writing about race), and Rachel Blau DuPlessis (writing about gender) have shaken up what previously passed for reality. In our pluralistic world, classic realism is no longer an option for authors who want to convey the truth of life. Rushdie mentions what has taken its place:

In the twentieth century, under the pressure of enormous social changes, the nineteenth-century consensus was revealed as fragile; its view of reality began to look, one might say, fake. At first, some of the greatest literary artists sought to chronicle the changing reality by using the methods of the realist novel—as Thomas Mann did in Buddenbrooks, or Junichiro Tanizaki in The Makioka Sisters—but gradually the realist novel seemed more and more problematic, and writers from Franz Kafka to Ralph Ellison and Gabriel García Márquez created stranger, more surreal texts, telling the truth by means of obvious untruth, creating a new kind of reality, as if by magic.

If the magical realism of García Márquez, Isabel Allende, Gunter Grass, Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, and Rushdie is so powerful, it is because it captures the modern world’s “conflicting and often incompatible narratives”:

I have argued, for much of my life as a writer, that the breakdown in the old agreements about reality is now the most significant reality, and that the world can perhaps best be explained in terms of conflicting and often incompatible narratives. In Kashmir and in the Middle East, and in the battle between progressive America and Trumpistan, we see examples of such incompatibilities. I have also maintained that the consequences of this new, argumentative, even polemical attitude to the real has profound implications for literature—that we can’t, or ought not to, pretend it isn’t there. I believe that the influence on public discourse of more, and more varied, voices has been a good thing, enriching our literatures and making more complex our understanding of the world.

Rushdie is aware of the conundrum at which he has arrived, however. If there are conflicting realities, then who determines which one should have precedence? What is to prevent an autocrat from declaring his own preferred reality as the truth and using the power of the state to back it up? Drawing on One Hundred Years of Solitude, yesterday I described Trump’s determination to dictate the reality of Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria. Here’s Rushdie setting forth the problem:

How can we argue, on the one hand, that modern reality has become necessarily multidimensional, fractured and fragmented, and, on the other hand, that reality is a very particular thing, an unarguable series of things that are so, which needs to be defended against the attacks of, to be frank, the things that are not so, which are being promulgated by, let’s say, the Modi Administration in India, the Brexit crew in the U.K., and the President of the United States? How to combat the worst aspects of the Internet, that parallel universe in which important information and total garbage coexist, side by side, with, apparently, the same levels of authority, making it harder than ever for people to tell them apart? How to resist the erosion in the public acceptance of “basic facts,” scientific facts, evidence-supported facts about, say, climate change or inoculations for children? How to combat the political demagoguery that seeks to do what authoritarians have always wanted—to undermine the public’s belief in evidence, and to say to their electorates, in effect, “Believe nothing except me, for I am the truth”? What do we do about that? 

Literature has a special role in combatting this, Rushdie says, and for that he draws on the idea of universal human nature, which was big in the 1950s and 1960s (think of Edward Steichen’s 1955 Family of Man exhibit) but then fell into disfavor with the deconstructionists and, after them, the new historicists. Rushdie writes,

[W]hen we read a book we like, or even love, we find ourselves in agreement with its portrait of human life. Yes, we say, this is how we are, this is what we do to one another, this is true. That, perhaps, is where literature can help most. We can make people agree, in this time of radical disagreement, on the truths of the great constant, which is human nature.

In my opinion, deconstruction was a useful skepticism, getting us to challenge received truths, but ultimately it descended into nihilistic relativism. New historicism, like cultural anthropology, had its own contributions to make and its own limitations. Rushdie argues that the truth we experience with great literature gives us a unifying foundation to fight back against tyranny:

[A]s far as writers are concerned, we need to rebuild our readers’ belief in argument from factual evidence, and to do what fiction has always been good at doing—to construct, between the writer and the reader, an understanding about what is real. I don’t mean to reconstruct the narrow, exclusive consensus of the nineteenth century. I like the broader, more disputatious view of society to be found in modern literature. But when we read a book we like, or even love, we find ourselves in agreement with its portrait of human life. Yes, we say, this is how we are, this is what we do to one another, this is true. That, perhaps, is where literature can help most. 

Rushdie concludes by referencing German authors following World War II. Having seen their society “poisoned by Nazism,” they wrote “rubble literature (“Trümmerliteratur”), which was literature designed to rebuild their shattered language and their shattered country. Authors face a similar call today:

We stand once again, though for different reasons, in the midst of the rubble of the truth. And it is for us—writers, thinkers, journalists, philosophers—to undertake the task of rebuilding our readers’ belief in reality, their faith in the truth. And to do it with new language, from the ground up.

Having taught two Rushdie novels this past semester, one in Magical Realism (Midnight’s Children) and one in British Fantasy (Two Years, Eight Months, and 28 Days), I can testify that he is doing his part. Fantasy, when combined with a deep understanding of human nature, gives us space to imagine healthy alternatives to the deadening realities that threaten to crush us. Rushdie acknowledges multiple cultural voices in his fictions, even while also capturing our shared humanity.

I won’t say that reading good contemporary literature will solve our problems. It is, however, a powerful ally as we mount a resistance.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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